August 21, 2012

Eight Big Questions for MLL Championship Weekend

by Phil Shore |

* Team-by-team breakdown

Long Island Lizards faceoff man Greg Gurenlian has won 60.3 percent of faceoffs in six games this season against playoff teams, but he'll face stiff competition from the game's best.
© Lee Weissman

The 2012 Major League Lacrosse season has been the biggest in league history. Expansion teams made their debuts, records were broken on the field and at the gates, and SportsCenter-worthy highlights and close games have made this season a memorable one.

The year isn't over yet though and Championship Weekend figures to just add to all the excitement.

Four teams—Denver, Long Island, Chesapeake and Boston, the defending champion—will play three games to determine one champion.

Here are the questions that will be answered as the narrative that is the 2012 MLL season will come to a thrilling finish.

1. Can Denver finally win it all?

Every August this question is asked. And while for the past six years it has been answered with a no, it still is impressive that we can constantly talk about the Outlaws this deep into the season. Still, they're beginning to look a little like the early '90s Buffalo Bills—"always a bridesmaid, never a bride."

This version of the Outlaws has exceeded pre-season expectations however and they've been very impressive. Denver is first in the league in goals scored and shooting percentage, second in goals against, third in ground ball pickups and fifth in faceoff winning percentage—though they've been much improved since Anthony Kelly has joined the team via trade. They also have the league's best away record (6-1) and longest winning streak (6). The team's play has prompted veterans Brendan Mundorf and Matt Bocklet to, on separate occasions, say that this is the best version of the Outlaws they've played for.

So it looks like this is the best chance Denver has finally had to break through and win it all. But the pressure is on.

2. Will not winning the No. 1 seed come back to haunt the Bayhawks?

A win against the Outlaws in the last week of the regular season would have earned Chesapeake the No. 1 seed and the earlier semi-final game, where should they have won they would have gotten three extra hours rest heading into the championship game.

Instead, they lost and Denver has the momentum and confidence on their side. Chesapeake is left with the No. 2 seed and a tougher road to win it all. As the top team in the standings Chesapeake would've played Long Island, a team that they swept the season series with and score only six points against the Bayhawks three weeks ago. Instead, the Bayhawks face the Boston Cannons, who beat Chesapeake last time out. The Cannons also beat the Bayhawks in last year's semifinal.

Missing out on the No. 1 seed was an opportunity squandered by the Bayhawks and now they will pay the consequences with a more arduous road to the finals. Four of the last five champions have played in Saturday's first semifinal.

3. Does Boston have enough left in the tank to repeat?

The saying is that it's harder to stay on top then it is to get there. A mid-season swoon saw the defending champion Boston Cannons lose five of seven games and put their playoff hopes in jeopardy. At that point every game was a "must-win"; every game had playoff-like intensity.

The Cannons won three in a row and make the playoffs, and leap-frogged the Lizards in the standings to get the No. 3 seed. Those games were not walks in the park however. The Cannons needed a third-quarter comeback to beat the then-league leading Bayhawks by three to start the streak and then needed a fourth-quarter comeback against the Ohio Machine in the final game of the season to clinch a playoff berth with a two-goal victory.

The pressure remains on the Cannons as they look to defend their title on their home field at Harvard Stadium in front of many of their own fans. They will get a tough test against the Bayhawks.

It wouldn't be a surprise to see them come up victorious, but it also wouldn't be shocking to see them wear down at some point.

2012 MLL Championship Weekend

at Harvard Stadium, Boston

Semifinals, Aug. 25

No. 1 Denver vs. No. 4 Long Island, 1 p.m. (ESPN2)

No. 2 Chesapeake vs. No. 3 Boston, Approx. 4 p.m.
(CBS Sports Network)

Championship, Aug. 26

3 p.m. (ESPN2)

4. Which Long Island will show up?

The Lizards are the streakiest team in the league. The breakdown of their results this season looks like this: two consecutive losses, five wins, two losses, three wins, two losses. When they're hot, they're hot, and they haven't lost more than two games in a row this season, which means they're right on target to get hot again.

But the cliché is that teams in the playoffs need to be playing their best ball of the year and Long Island seems to be at its worst. They've lost two in a row, scoring no more than eight in goals in each loss. Their season-ending 18-8 defeat at Hamilton was the Lizards' most lopsided defeat of the season.

The Lizards may have "lucked" out though. They will face Denver in the first semifinal as opposed to Chesapeake. The Lizards beat the Outlaws in the last outing between the two, as opposed to getting swept by the Bayhawks this season. And if Long Island secures the upset over the Outlaws in the first game, they'll get the extra rest heading into the championship tilt against a battle-weary team from the second semifinal.

5. Which team has the edge at faceoffs?

It's no secret that good faceoff play has been the key to success in the MLL and these teams have the top talent in the league at that position. Statistically they are four of the top five teams in the league in faceoff winning percentage. They feature four of only five specialists to take over 300 faceoffs this season.

Greg Gurenlian (Long Island) was probably the most dominant of specialists this year, winning 60.2-percent of his faceoffs and tallying seven points. Boston will throw out the tandem of Chris Eck (58.5 percent, seven points) and John Ortolani (22 of 36 from the X in the season finale). Chesapeake has the combo of Adam Rand (53.6 percent) and Alex Smith (9 of 18 in his first game this season back from injury, a career total of 58.7-percent). Denver boasts Anthony Kelly, who has won 58.4 percent of his faceoffs in five games since becoming an Outlaw.

Gurenlian has been just as dominant against the three playoff teams this year, winning 94 faceoffs of 156 (60.3 percent) in six games against those teams and scored two of his goals against Boston so he's the favorite. But Boston and Chesapeake should benefit from having two capable faceoff guys going, providing much-needed breaks for each other at a physically-demanding position in the midst of a grueling portion of the schedule.

6. How will the rookies fare with the heightened intensity?

MLL rookies are unique to other sports as they play out their final college seasons and then jump right into the middle of the MLL season. They are playing high-intensity games from February through August. It's a long season.

That being said, a major part of Long Island and Denver's success has been their rookies.

Long Island boasts MLL Rookie of the Year Matt Gibson (18g, 15a) as well as Tommy Palasek (21g, 5a) and Will Mangan (8g, 3a). The Lizards also have LSM C.J. Costabile. Those four players alone have combined for almost a third of the Lizards goal-scoring this season.

Denver has some great rookies as well, including Mark Matthews (19g, 9a), Chris Bocklet (17g, 3a), Drew Snider (10g, 1a) and Colin Briggs (2g, 4a). Matthews and Bocklet both won multiple Rookie of the Week honors.

The youthfulness of the Denver and Long Island rosters could prove beneficial with a short break between Saturday and Sunday's games. That is if the players, so key to their respective teams' successes, don't wear down at the most crucial point of the season.

With the exception of Gibson and Mangan, all of these rookies have played in the NCAA final four. They are used to the pressure and have all risen to the occasion before. This is just one more chance to play on that big stage.

Oft-maligned Jordan Burke is the only goaltender in this year's final four to have been the starting goalie for an MLL championship team (Boston in 2011).
© Bill Danielewski

7. Can Jordan Burke bring back some of that 2011 magic?

The four teams remaining have some great goaltenders between the pipes. Burke, of the Cannons, seems to be the forgotten one of the foursome, however.

Chesapeake's Kip Turner has the league's best goals against average (10.51) and second-best save-percentage (.544). Denver's Jesse Schwartzman has the second-best goals against average (11.03) and was the MLL Week 14 Defensive Player of the Week. Long Island's Drew Adams was named on Monday as the league's goalkeeper of the year for the second straight season.

Burke? Well he's been criticized for allowing an 80-yard goal against Ohio three weeks ago.

But Burke has been the low-man on the totem pole before. He was the backup to Turner in Boston before rising above him last season. Burke is also the only goalie of the four to have won an MLL championship as the starter (Turner was with the Cannons last season, but played in only three games all year).

With experience under his belt expect Burke to step up his game when the Cannons need him most.

8. How important is the rubber match between Chesapeake and Boston?

For the third consecutive time the Bayhawks will meet the Cannons in the semifinals of Championship Weekend. The past two winners of that game have gone on to win it all.

In 2010, the fourth-seeded Bayhawks upset the top-ranked Cannons 13-9 then beat the third-seeded Lizards in the championship game 13-9.

In 2011, the top-seeded Cannons got revenge on the fourth-seeded Bayhawks, winning a 14-13 thriller in the last seconds of the game in the middle of a hurricane and then defeated the No. 3 Hamilton Nationals 10-9.

Is it a coincidence that both teams played the No. 3 seed in the championship game? Could the Cannons have the upper hand here?

While that is just a conspiracy, what is a concrete observation is that these two teams have played in some great games against each other over the past few years and they are the upper echelon of franchises in the league.

Saturday's semifinal will be another chapter in that great rivalry and will play a big role in the outcome of the Championship Weekend.

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