The reigning champions have lived to defend their National Lacrosse League title.
That’s much to the chagrin of the Calgary Roughnecks, who couldn’t keep the Colorado Mammoth from advancing once more to the NLL Finals.
A 9-7 victory by the visitors in Saturday night’s third-and-deciding game of the West Conference final on WestJet Field at Scotiabank Saddledome ensured that ticket into the best-of-three title battle — a rematch of last year — against the East Conference-champ Buffalo Bandits.
“Pretty hollow feeling,” said Roughnecks head coach Curt Malawsky. “You really believed you could win, and you really believed you were going to Buffalo and that you could win it all.
“It’s tough, and it hurts a lot.”
That’s not a surprise given how close they were to making the trip to the championship series.
The difference was one goal — that by Warren Jeffery with 6:28 remaining as part of a three-goal rally from one down by the Mammoth in the fourth quarter — and a handful of incredible saves by goaltender Dillon Ward down the stretch.
“Number 45 (Ward) was the difference,” Malawsky said. “We had some great chances on him. It all starts and ends with the goalie. It was a great series. The difference was by millimetres.”
Indeed, shots by three of the Riggers’ usual scoring suspects — Jesse King, Dan Taylor and Tanner Cook — were turned aside by Ward in the final two minutes of action.
And with about 15 seconds left on the clock, the Mammoth goalie made his biggest stop — that on star forward Tyler Pace after the Roughnecks turned over the ball deep in enemy territory, setting up a chance on the doorstep.
A few ticks later, the ball was sent up the floor to Connor Robinson for the empty-net insurance.
And one heck of a season over for the Roughnecks.
“It’s tough when those bounces don’t fall your way,” said Riggers captain King. “I thought that our offence did really well, and we had a lot of really good chances. I think I hit like three or four posts, and there were a couple unlucky bounces in front of our net that led to goals for them. A couple posts here and there. When those don’t fall your way … not only do they not go in, but it’s also a little bit defeating. The only thing you can do is try and get back up and come out the next shift and score.
“Credit to them, they made adjustments and played really well in their defensive end. At the end of the day, either one of us could have won this game.”
It looked like it would be a special night for the Roughnecks, especially since three shorthanded goals contributed mightily to the effort, as did an exceptional defensive performance by the Riggers in the second half, anchored by their own all-world goaltender in Christian Del Bianco.
Those shorthanded tallies were certainly brilliant.
The first opened the contest just 49 seconds in, when Jeff Cornwall scored in transition and set the Riggers off to a 4-2 lead through the first frame.
The next one was the goal of the night — and maybe the year — as Zach Currier gave the Roughnecks a 5-4 lead in the second quarter on an absolute beauty play. With Ward unable to track a rebound that fell behind him beside the net, Currier — from his knees behind the net — set himself into a lunge position before scooping and scoring in one electrifying motion.
Although the Mammoth fought back immediately on goals by Tyson Gibson — from long range — and Tim Edwards — sneaking one into the net in transition to earn a 6-5 advantage at halftime, the Riggers’ third shorthanded goal put them back on top in the third quarter. It was another sweet play capped by Shane Simpson in transition after he went straight to the net, took a perfect pass from Currier and beat Ward between the legs.
The 7-6 goal 3:18 into the second half was the last seen by either team until Zed Williams tied it on another shot from distance midway through the final frame.
And that goal spurred on the reigning kings to victory, as Ward had the last stops and — ultimately — the last laugh.
He had 33 stops in the win, while Del Bianco made 28 saves in the down-to-the-wire duel.
“He’s a great goaltender … Christian’s a great goaltender,” added King. “I thought we outplayed them to be honest. They got a couple lucky bounces on their end.
“I just don’t believe that we deserved to lose, and it’s still setting in.”
The roster remained the same for the Roughnecks seven days after the Game 2 victory at the Dome. That saw F Zach Herreweyers stay on the practice roster, T Ethan Ticehurst (lower body) remain in sick bay and both D Kieran McKay and D Harrison Matsuoka scratched from the lineup … The Bandits, with their 14-4 regular-season record, own home-floor advantage for the best-of-three championship round … The Bandits rolled the Toronto Rock in the East Conference final by obliterating them in Toronto 17-8 just 24 hours after doing the same thing in a 14-5 affair in Upstate New York.
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