August 20, 2009

Four of a Kind: MLL Championship Preview

by Corey McLaughlin | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Which team will win this weekend's MLL championship?
Long Island

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The Major League Lacrosse championship will be decided this weekend at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md. Top-seeded Denver plays Boston in the first semifinal at noon Saturday. Toronto and Long Island play in the other semifinal at 3 p.m. Saturday. The championship is 1 p.m. Sunday and will be televised on ESPN2.

Here's a breakdown of the contenders:

No. 1 Denver Outlaws (9-3)

How they got here: By being the most balanced team in the league. The Outlaws have depth on both ends of the field and a solid goalie in net. They play a rookie, Shane Walterhoefer, on faceoffs and while his percentage is low, he hasn't been a pushover.

Leading scorers: Drew Westervelt (29g, 17a); Brendan Mundorf (34g, 10a); Matt Brown (24g, 6a)
Faceoff: Shane Walterhoefer (40.0 percent)
Goalie: Jesse Schwartzman (11.28 GAA, .548 pct.)

Why they can win: Play their game, and defense. Denver went 2-1 against Toronto this season, beat Long Island three times and split a two-game series with Boston. (The loss was by one goal.) Mundorf and Westervelt are special attackmen, and Brian Langtry (15g, 10a) is the team's fourth leading scorer form the midfield. The defense is consistent and allowed the fewest goals per game of any team this season (11.5). They killed an astounding 83 percent of penalties and Schwartzman was named the league's goalie of the year.

Why they can lose:
Hard to indentify, as Denver should be the favorite. But if an opposing offense or player gets hot -- think Paul Rabil, or Sean Morris, who had six points in Boston's regular season win over Denver -- you never know. Walterhoefer will need to keep his faceoff percentage manageable and prevent fast-break opportunities. Possessions will be key, and Denver can't afford stretches without goals.

No. 2 Toronto Nationals (7-5)

How they got here: The Nationals scored more goals this season than any other team, and that sometimes masked inconsistencies on defense. But there's no doubting this core group's ability to win a title. Last year, many of them did it as Rochester Rattlers. The Nationals also reached the playoffs without star John Grant, who was out for most of the year with injury, but is now back.

Leading scorers: Merrick Thomson (44g, 6a), Joe Walters (25g, 17a), Jeff Zywicki (19g, 14a)
Faceoffs: Geoff Snider (50.6 percent)
Goaltending: Brett Queener (13.17 GAA, .590 save pct.); Doc Schneider (15.66 GAA, .556 save pct.)

Why they can win: Scoring in transition, two-man game. Thomson, right now, is the best finisher in the game and Grant, after scoring five goals against Denver is his MLL season debut in the regular season finale, will provide more offense. Toronto uses the Canadian two-man, pick-and-roll game better than any other team. Snider is solid on faceoffs.

Why they can lose: Defensive lapses. At times, the Toronto defense hasn't played to its potential. Of the four playoff teams, the Nationals allowed the most goals (15 per game) of any during the regular season. The Nats do, however, have four-time defenseman of the year Brodie Merrill leading a crew a talented defenders.

No. 3 Long Island Lizards (6-6)

How they got here: Barely. The Lizards, held back by a puttering offense, went 2-4 in their final six games and needed a last-minute win on the final weekend of the season against Chicago to earn a playoff berth. But Long Island then secured the No. 3 seed because it owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Boston. The Lizards went 3-0 against the Cannons this season. That's half their wins.

Leading scorers: Matt Danowski (17g, 14a); Tim Goettelmann (24g, 3a); Stephen Berger (18g, 6a)
Faceoff: Pete Vlahakis (54.1 percent)
Goalie: Brian Dougherty (12.13 GAA, .538 save pct.)

Why they can win: Goaltending and defense. Brian Dougherty, a multiple-time MLL champ, in net and a tough defense paced by Nicky Polanco and Brian Spallina is difficult to beat.

Why they can lose:
Little to no offense. If Zack Greer (hand) is able to return and play at a high level, his presence will improve Long Island's chances of scoring goals. Since he went out with the injury on July 4, the offense has struggled. Goettelmann has kept the team in several games with his one-on-one ability, but there isn't much flow to the Lizards' offense. Only one player, Danowski, has double-digit assists.

No. 4 Boston Cannons (6-6)

How they got here: All of Boston's six losses have come by one point, which says two things: 1) the Cannons had a chance to win every game this season and, 2) they lost half of them. They appear to be very well-rounded on paper and have perhaps the game's best player, Paul Rabil.

Leading scorers:
Paul Rabil (41g, 12a); Sean Morris (21g, 21a); Ryan Boyle (12g, 23a)
Faceoff: Chris Eck (54.6 percent)
Goalie: Mike Levin (12.35 GAA, .560 save pct.); Kip Turner (12.56 GAA, .538 save pct.)

Why they can win: Keep possession. Second-year pro Eck has been great on draws, finishing the year only behind Alex Smith in percentage, and Smith isn't in these playoffs. If the offense gets extra possessions, the Cannons are dangerous. Ryan Boyle has championship experience and Rabil has enormous influence on the outcomes of games.

Why they can lose: Close-game failures. Based on its track record, Boston can ill afford to be in a close game in the fourth quarter. While all their losses have been by one goal, the Cannons won games this year by much more comfortable margins. They need to get going quick and not let up.

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