June 5, 2013

MLL Power Rankings: Nationals Off to Special Start

by Evan Washburn | LaxMagazine.com

Former No. 1 overall pick Kevin Crowley and the Hamilton Nationals are off to a 5-0 start after beating defending league champ Chesapeake last weekend.

Week 6 in Major League Lacrosse can be characterized as separation week. The Denver Outlaws and Hamilton Nationals ascended to early season elite status by moving to 5-0. Chesapeake, Charlotte, New York and Rochester find themselves fighting in the middle, while Boston and Ohio seem to have taken up permanent residency in the cellar.

It's a quick turnaround for four of the league's eight teams, with week seven kicking off Thursday night when the Bayhawks and Lizards face off on Randall's Island in Manhattan, a game that can be seen live on CBS Sports Network at 7 p.m. EST

1. Denver Outlaws (5-0)

Despite not having beat a team with a winning record this season, the Outlaws remain atop this week's rankings. Denver has been dominant against lesser opponents, putting up 44 goals in their last two wins over Rochester and Boston.

The offense is playing with unheard of efficiency. In its 24-14 win over the Cannons, Denver shot 50 percent from the field. Head coach Jim Stagnitta has successfully found balance with seven players with double-digit point totals.

Defensively the Outlaws have the best cover man in the world in Lee Zink, who you can put on the opposing team's most important player and remove their production from the game. Just ask Ned Crotty and Ryan Boyle. Goalie Jesse Schwartzman continues to play at a consistently high level and orchestrates the defense with a strong command.

The Outlaws face their toughest test of the season on Saturday night when the fellow 5-0 Hamilton Nationals visit Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

2. Hamilton Nationals (5-0)

The Nationals are off to their best start in franchise history. They have won three of their five games by a combined three goals. Two of those games have gone to overtime, including this past weekend against the Bayhawks in Annapolis. The win over Chesapeake was one of the best MLL games I have seen in the three years I have covered the league. There is something special brewing north of the border and the biggest difference seems to be new head coach Dave Huntley.

While the offense continues to put up big numbers, thanks to a variety of weapons, the biggest difference in 2013 has been the play of the defense. Hamilton is allowing only 10 goals per game, good enough for second best in the MLL. Goalie Brett Queener is having a career year, saving 67 percent of shots faced, all with a torn meniscus. Rookie Tucker Durkin's transition to the professional ranks has been seamless and he is already the team's top cover man. That has allowed Brodie Merrill to play a more free safety role within the defense, something his game is built for.

Finding a way to win games often is mistaken for luck, it is a skill earned not given. Hamilton heads to Denver feeling that they still have a lot to prove.

3. Chesapeake Bayhawks (3-2)

I still think the Bayhawks are the most talented team in the league. They have lost two games in a row both in overtime and have yet to play their best lacrosse for a full 60 minutes. There is no panic in Annapolis because the problem is crystal clear.

The midfield that was unstoppable in 2012 is slumping in 2013.

All-stars Kyle Dixon, Steven Brooks, Ben Hunt and Michael Kimmel are shooting a combined 12 percent (9-for-70) this season. Last season it was this group that paced the Bayhawks offense, putting up 82 goals, 22 of which were behind the two-point arc. In a conversation with head coach Dave Cottle this week, there was no downplaying the lack of production.

"If you run a business and four of your employees are having a down year you have to find a way to fix the problem," Cottle Said.

He went on to say that they will change things up and will adjust practice to try this group out of their slump.

Chesapeake has the luxury of the leagues best defense keeping them in games, while the offense works through its issues.

Thursday night may be the best time for this team to play their best game as they head into what is being called a street fight against the Lizards.

4. Charlotte Hounds (2-3)

The Hounds went to New York this past weekend and got one of the best wins in this young franchise's history. Trailing for most of the night and with their best player Matt Danowski being held in check, Charlotte fought its way back into the game and snuck off the Island with a win.

The biggest difference was the play this team's youth.

Second-year attackman Eric Lusby had three goals and one assist. Mike Sawyer scored back-to-back goals in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to one and then tie the game, off of assists from fellow rookie Matt White. First-year long-stick midfielder Mason Poli chipped in a goal and was great off the carpet with three ground balls. Also on the defensive end the Hounds 51st pick in the 2013 draft, Michael McCormack, caused the final turnover of the game with a takeaway on Stephen Peyser.

This team can make the playoffs if they continue to get production from their first- and second-year players. The veterans like Matt Danowski, Peet Poillon, Joe Cinosky and Ryan Flanagan will feed off the fact that they finally have help.

The major issue going forward continues to be at the faceoff stripe. Tim Fallon's 43 percent will not get it done down the stretch. The Hounds desperately need Geoff Snider, who remains absent after the indoor season.

5. New York Lizards (2-3)

In the Lizards loss to Charlotte, New York did not play with the intensity and emotion that made them so dangerous in 2012. Head coach Joe Spallina said this week that his team needs to play with the attitude it had last season when no one expected them to make championship weekend.

Offensive chemistry is the glaring problem. Rob Pannell has come in and looked great, but it will take time for everyone else to understand their role now that the quarterback has arrived. The most important relationship will be between Pannell and Mark Matthews, who Friday night had just one goal, off a rebound.

New York seems confident that this will all come together and they do have the luxury of a few weeks, but a loss to Chesapeake Thursday night and things will get a bit tight.

6. Rochester Rattlers (2-3)

Despite having the same record the difference between the Rattlers and Lizards is night and day. Against a rookie all-star team in the Ohio Machine, the Rattlers only put up nine goals, winning by just two. I hate to crush a team that got a win, but I was there calling the game and it was easily one of the ugliest I have seen in three years.

The bright spot has to be the defense, that when communicating well, is really good. John Galloway had his best game of the season with 16 saves and I love the energy he brings.

The two players that have to pick it up on that end of the field are Joel White and Steve DeNapoli. White was an All-Star in 2012 with 11 points and 59 ground balls, but has not played with the same energy and motor this season. DeNapoli is 0-for-8 from the field and has only eight ground balls, after 16 points and 43 ground balls in 2012. White and DeNapoli are key to this team manufacturing much-needed goals in transition.

The Rattlers can prove they belong stuck in the middle with a win over a desperate Boston team in Atlanta on Friday night at 8 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.

7. Boston Cannons (1-4)

The Cannons are admittedly in must-win mode. The regular names are still there for this team, but the continuity and teamwork has for some reason departed. It is not a new opinion but it continues to ring true. Ryan Boyle is this team's most important player. When Boyle gets a touch early in the shot clock and quarterbacks the offense this group is successful. In the team's lone win of the season over Chesapeake, Boyle had five points. In the team's four losses Boyle has combined for seven points.

Now it is not as simple as just getting more out of Boyle, the defense has been bad allowing a league worst 15 goals per game. Goalie Jordan Burke has not been himself thanks to his second thumb injury in two years. The players in front of Burke are not all the same. The Cannons have added some young talent to the defense, but with that comes growing pains.

This team has enough talent to be much better than 1-4, but that means nothing if the Cannons don't get a win over Rochester.

8. Ohio Machine (0-5)

Playing six rookies in a Major League Lacrosse game is not the recipe for success, but I commend the Machine for making an obvious commitment to the future. This team will not make the playoffs this season, so why not start building some chemistry with all the young talent. Rookie Logan Schuss was effective with four goals and Marcus Holman has been as advertised. If all of these young players stick around and Steele Stanwick takes an active role in leading this organization, there is a chance for good things to come.

All that being said, I could not believe some of the plays I saw on Sunday afternoon. The decision making during the game was brutal and that is not something youth can excuse. Making the simple play has to been the calling card for this team going forward on both ends of the field.

Saturday night is a big game not only because it is a chance for this group to get their first win, but it is against their fellow second year franchise the Charlotte Hounds. These two organizations will be forever linked and their successes compared.

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