June 26, 2013

Washburn's MLL Power Rankings: Charlotte on the Rise

by Evan Washburn | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Reigning MLL Offensive Player of the Week Matt Danowski and the Charlotte Hounds are on track to be among the teams at the league's championship weekend. 
© Lee Weissman 

There are just six games remaining in the 2013 regular season, which means the playoff race has officially begun. Denver and Hamilton are the only teams in the league with winning records, and could lock up their invitations to PPL Park in next couple weeks. That leaves Charlotte, Chesapeake, Boston, New York and Rochester all in the mix for the two remaining spots. While Ohio is not mathematically eliminated it would require a herculean effort to make the playoffs after a 1-7 start.

In a rare coincidence, this week's power rankings reflect the standings.

1. Denver Outlaws (8-0)

The dream season continues for Denver, which is now just two wins away from the best start in league history. The Outlaws have no visible weakness, sporting the MLL's top offense and defense. The balance of scoring continues to be the driving force for this team, with Outlaws sporting double-digit point totals.

Denver will play three out of its final six games at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, including the potential record-breaking game against New York on July 4th. The biggest roadblock in the way of this team capturing its first championship would be injuries. We all saw what happened to the Outlaws last year when Brendan Mundorf suffered an ankle injury the Friday before Championship Weekend.

While head coach Jim Stagnitta has bunch of weapons and obvious depth, there are a few vital pieces that cannot go down in the remaining six games. Those would be Mundorf, Lee Zink, Anthony Kelly and Jesse Schwartzman.

The Outlaws go for 9-0 against the Charlotte Hounds on Saturday at 10pm EST on CBS Sports Network.

2. Hamilton Nationals (6-2)

The Nationals rebounded nicely after two straight losses with a dominating performance over the Rochester Rattlers in Boca Raton, FL last Saturday.

Hamilton has all the pieces for a championship run. Kevin Crowley is the league's the top offensive player through eight games with 35 points. On the defensive end goalie Brett Queener is playing the best lacrosse of his career and has the luxury of a true shutdown defenseman in rookie Tucker Durkin.

The key to success for the Nationals is continued production from the role players. Head coach Dave Huntley can count on Crowley, Joe Walters, Stephen Keogh and Kevin Cunningham each week. But when Jordan Hall, Martin Cahill, Roy Lang and Cody Jamieson produce, this team is markedly more dangerous.

3. Charlotte Hounds (4-4)

I was in the booth for the Hounds 16-15 overtime win over the Bayhawks last Saturday and once again walked away impressed with this group's resiliency and ability to make in-game adjustments. It was 10-6 at half with the Bayhawks midfielders dominating and making goalie Adam Ghitlemann guess. After the break the Hounds looked like a different team.

The 3rd quarter belong to Matt Danowski, who is playing some of the best lacrosse of his professional career. He scored three goals, two of which were from behind the two-point arc. The Hounds outscored the Bayhawks 6-3 in the 3rd quarter on their way to the win.

It's clear that this team is building confidence each week and the mixture of youth and experience has developed into something special. Behind Danowski, the youthful offensive group of Ryan Young, Eric Lusby and Mike Sawyer has combined for 51 points. This team now has an identity and is quickly developing the one thing everyone in this league is searching for, chemistry.

4. Chesapeake Bayhawks (4-4)

The defending champions have lost four out of their last five games, three of which have been in overtime. There seems to be a feeling that at some point this group will just flip a switch and rekindle the magic that they had in 2012. In the first half against Charlotte I thought they had done just that.

The first five goals of the game were scored from the midfield, a group that has taken a ton of criticism due to a drop in production this season. The game was 10-6 at half, but that lead seemed much larger due to the efficiency the Bayhawks were showing on the field.

Well, in the 2nd half Charlotte and Matt Danowski went off, making even more obvious the absence of Chesapeake's best cover man, Michael Evans. Evans was out due to injury, which could be a huge storyline going forward if he is unable to get healthy.

This group needs to continue to put a premium on offensive execution and sharing the ball. Simply put, it is time for the Bayhawks to flip that switch.

5. Boston Cannons (3-5)

Three weeks after one of the worst starts in franchise history and the firing of their head coach, the Cannons are just one game back of third place. John Tucker has come in and guided this team to two wins and things are now looking bright in Boston.

The biggest difference from what I can see is the production of the role players like Kevin Buchanan, Mike Stone and rookies Cam Flint and Will Manny. This group has combined for 24 points in Boston's last two wins. Chris Eck's play at the face-off dot also has to be a part of the conversation. Eck has won 58% of his draws in the last two games.

The Cannons still have a lot of work to do, but look to be playing with a newfound energy and excitement. They also get the benefit of a trip to Ohio on Saturday, which should help boost their win total.

6. New York Lizards (3-5)

Offensive continuity continues to be a big issue for the Lizards. Despite a great deal of talent on that end of the field,New York is averaging only 10.25 goals per game, second worst in the league, inspite of face-off man Greg Gurenlian winning a league best 62% of his draws.

The positives for New York have been the development of Rob Pannell and Tommy Palasek, along with the re-emergence of Max Seibald, who had his best game of the season in the loss to Boston. Mark Matthews continues to be an enigma, with only two goals in his last two games. glaringly taking only five shots in that span. An improved on-field chemistry with Pannell and Palasek has to be a priority for Matthews.

The good news going forward for New York is that they still have two meetings each with Rochester and Denver, which can do a lot in terms of playoff positioning. The Lizards face the Rattlers Sunday at 3pm EST on CBS Sports Network.

7. Rochester Rattlers (3-5)

Since toppingthe Cannons in Georgia a few weeks back, the Rattlers have dropped two in a row. They have been inconsistent all season and need to play with a greater sense of urgency. The reality is that they are very much in the playoff conversation, but it just doesn't seem that this group is poised to make a run.

Rochester plays its next three games at home and have the roster to at least win two out of three. Rookie John Ranagan has been fantastic with 10 goals in only four games. Ned Crotty is finally getting help in terms of consistent production from complementary players, which means that there are really no excuses for this team not to be more competitive each week.

8. Ohio Machine (1-7)

After another ugly loss, this time 19-5 in Denver, the Machine finally made a coaching change. Ted Garber was let go and replaced by Bear Davis, a former division one head coach at Robert Morris and current associate athletic director and head coach at Archbishop Spalding high school in Maryland.

Davis is now tasked with bringing some sort of structure to a team that seems to be floundering. The Machine are wildly undisciplined on the field and turn the ball over at an alarming rate. Success for Davis and this group going forward in 2013 would be to just play a better brand of lacrosse.

There are a number of talented players on this team and many of them are young and used to the structure that comes with the college game. If Davis can provide a strong blueprint that this team respects and understands I think there are good things ahead. That being said I don't expect any of that to equate to wins this season.

Evan Washburn, the CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network commentator and host of CBS Sports Network's "Inside the MLL," provides weekly MLL power rankings throughout the season for LaxMagazine.comFollow him on Twitter @EvanWashburn.

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