July 16, 2013

Washburn's MLL Power Rankings: Looking Up at Denver

by Evan Washburn | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Jesse Schwartzman and the Outlaws have the rest of the league - including the defending champion Bayhawks - looking up at them with just four regular-season weeks remaining.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com 

The All Star break is in the rear view mirror and now there are just four games remaining until the Championship Weekend field is set. This week's power rankings reflect my opinion of the where the league's eight teams stand based off of the eye test, results and potential.

1. Denver Outlaws (10-0)

No surprise here. The Outlaws have been the league's best team all season long and have already locked up a spot in the postseason, thanks to the best start in MLL history. The recipe for success has been a team brand of lacrosse that is the best I have ever seen played.

Denver sports the league's best defense and offense, beating opponents by an average of eight goals. The Outlaws can lock up the top overall seed for Championship Weekend with a win Saturday in Rochester (1p.m./CBS Sports Network) and a Hamilton loss to Ohio. A 14-0 regular season is a reality, but I don't think it will happen because once they lock up the number one seed I would expect top players like Brendan Mundorf, Jesse Schwartzman and Anthony Kelly to play very limited minutes.

A chance at history would be nice, but for Denver it is all about winning the franchise's first championship and the only thing standing in its way are potential injuries.

2. Chesapeake Bayhawks (6-4)

The defending champs have had an up and down season and were lucky to get out of Ohio with a win a few weeks back. That being said I still think this team has the ingredients to knock off the Outlaws if things go their way.

The offense has improved and is now getting consistent production from Ben Hunt, who has nine goals in his last four games. Throw in rookie Kevin Cooper who had three goals and one assist in his debut and there are more dimensions to this unit.

The one glaring issue is All Star Kyle Dixon's epic shooting slump. Dixon is 0-25 in his last four games. His last goal came six weeks ago against New York. Dixon is too valuable to remain just a passing threat down the stretch.

We will know if this group has finally decided to flip that preverbal switch Thursday night, when they take on bitter rival Boston - winners of four in a row - at 7pm on CBS Sports Network.

3. Hamilton Nationals (7-3)

I am well of aware of the fact that a team is what its record says it is, but Hamilton is not playing like a 7-3 team. I watched their 10-6 win over Rochesterin person, and there were way too many turnovers. Had they been playing a team that could capitalize on the extra possessions, they would have lost.

The Nationals have the best player in the league this season in Kevin Crowley and when their offense is humming they can score with anyone. But I think teams are getting better at defending their unique brand of offense and new wrinkles may have to be inserted. The defense has become the strength of this team. Brett Queener has been fantastic, Brodie Merrill continues to play at a high level and rookie Tucker Durkin has thrown himself into the defenseman of the year conversation.

Thanks to a 5-0 start Hamilton has a chance to clinch a playoff spot this weekend with a win over Ohio and a Rochester and Charlotte loss.

4. Boston Cannons (5-5)

If not for the Outlaws and their historic 10-0 record, the Cannons would be the story of the 2013 season. After a 1-5 start Boston has won four straight games, and after watching their win over Charlotte - one of the most entertaining games of the year - I think this team is going to make the playoffs and be a tough out.

One of the many differences during the win streak has been the play of the defense. After giving up 83 goals in their first six games, adjustments were made and now this unit is playing much better. Goalie Jordan Burke is finally healthy and the new look close defense of Mitch Belisle, Kyle Sweeney and rookie Scott Ratliff have done nice job.

Thursday night is a huge game for Boston. A win would give them the season sweep of Chesapeake and the upper hand in the race for 3rd place. Seeding will matter more this season, because nobody wants to face Denver on Semifinal Saturday.

5. Charlotte Hounds (4-6)

After a fantastic comeback, Charlotte should have gotten out of Boston with a win in week 10. While the Hounds are still very much in the hunt for the postseason, I think this team is one year away from being a serious contender. Playing six and seven rookies for the past few weeks has worked surprisingly well and the chemistry is building right before our eyes, but in big time moments youth can crumble.

The anchor of this team continues to be Matt Danowski who is having an MVP caliber season. The six-year pro has 16 points in his last three games and has shown the ability to put this team on his back. That will have to continue if the Hounds want to make that push towards the postseason. That push starts Saturday afternoon when Charlotte takes on Danowski's former team the New York Lizards.

6. Rochester Rattlers (4-6)

The Rattlers season has been quite an enigma. I thought I had things figured out, until they played another uninspired game against Hamilton.

Rochester had been great on Sundays. With the ability to have a full and competitive practice on Saturday night the Rattlers won games against Ohio and New York the following day. Well against Hamilton Rochester once again looked like a team that didn't want to be on the field. The offense was terrible. The Rattlers shot 15% and the team's best player, Ned Crotty, was held to just one assist and one shot.

Rochester still has a shot at the playoffs despite their wildly inconsistent season. They will face Denver Saturday afternoon at Sahlen's Stadium.

7. New York Lizards (3-7)

This past Saturday in Charlotte at the All Star game the Lizards represented themselves very well and proved why many of us thought this team was destined for great things in 2013. Rob Pannell had four points (3 goals, 1 assist), fellow attackman Tommy Palasek had three points (2 goals, 1 assist), face-off specialist Greg Gurenlian chipped in with two points and was nearly 50% at the "X" and lastly defenseman Brian Karalunas was all over the field scooping up 10 groundballs and dishing out an assist.

The problem is that all of that means nothing when it comes to this team winning games. It will have been 10 days since their ugly loss to Denver, when New York takes the field in Charlotte on Saturday.

Despite the disappointing season, New York is not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

8. Ohio Machine (1-9)

It would have been the biggest win in franchise history, but instead it was just loss number nine on the season. The Machine went toe to toe with the Bayhawks, but fell by one 14-13. As a team they looked much better and the cohesion on both ends of the field has improved.

There seems to be a clear direction and level of expectations under new head coach Bear Davis. The Machine still lacks a depth of talent, especially on the defensive end. The bright spots continue to be young attackmen Joe Cummings and Logan Schuss. Cummings should have been an All Star selection and Schuss is doing exactly what he did at Ohio State, score goals.

The goal for Ohio in the remaining four games is obviously to get as many wins as possible, but more so continue to show improvement. This team is building for 2013 and preparations start Saturday.

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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