August 8, 2013

MLL Week 14: Denver Playing for Perfection

by Phil Shore |

A win against Hamilton on Saturday would give Denver the MLL's first-ever perfect regular season, but they may have to do it without reigning MVP Brendan Mundorf.
©Rich Barnes 

Once again, the Outlaws find themselves on the verge of history. With a win over the Hamilton Nationals Saturday, Denver can be the first MLL team to finish a regular season undefeated.

"It would be nice to end the season undefeated," Outlaws head coach Jim Stagnitta said. "I know that's what the guys in the locker room are going to be focused on."

Denver already has the most wins in an MLL season. It also has the best start by an MLL team. The team will go into the playoffs the No. 1 seed, much like last year when the team lost in the championship game to the Chesapeake Bayhawks.

It's been an impressive run, but that doesn't mean everything has come easy for the team atop the league standings. The past three weeks Denver has grinded out victories, outlasting opponents while failing to win by more than three goals.

Stagnitta welcomes the competition, however.

"I'm glad that we've had some challenges down the stretch and that we've had to respond to situations we hadn't faced," he said. "Our goal is to win this game to keep this run going. Mentally, it can be an impact on both sides. If we win the game it continues to make this great run. If we lose we can learn from it."

Standing between Denver and a perfect regular season is Hamilton, the second-place team, in what could be a preview of the championship game.

The two teams squared off in Week 6 in a battle of the unbeatens, which turned out to be a lopsided 22-9 victory for the Outlaws.

"We're trying to get a win against a very good team," Nationals head coach Dave Huntley said. "I hope half of us are in the final. In order to be there you have to play better every week."

Huntley knows taking down the Outlaws won't be easy, however.

"We have to make sure we take good shots on Jesse Schwartzman. If we take bad shots on him they'll most likely come back on us and in the back of the goal," he said. "They play so well it puts a lot of pressure on you."

For the Outlaws, much like Stagnitta talked about overcoming obstacles in recent weeks and this weekend's game could be a preview of the title game, Stagnitta says this whole season has all been about preparation.

"I just feel like we are better built for [championship] weekend. We tried to build this team so we could be successful in back to back games in the last weekend of August," Stagnitta said. "I feel we're all better prepared for this."

Chesapeake and Charlotte battle for the No. 3 seed – and not to face Denver

While the top two teams in the MLL standings square off, the other playoff teams meet with even more on the line.

The Hounds are one game behind the Bayhawks, but with a victory Charlotte and Chesapeake would have the same record with the Hounds taking the No. 3 seed thanks to a season sweep. The advantage of the third seed in the playoffs is that the winning team won't have to play the favorite Denver Outlaws in the semi-finals.

Both teams want to win, but avoiding Denver is not the motivation – at least not publicly.

"I think Denver is a tremendous team," Hounds head coach Mike Cerino said. "But everybody we play in championship weekend is going to be tough. We hope we're a tough matchup too."

Bayhawks head coach Dave Cottle echoed that statement.

"We're not afraid of Denver," he said. "We just have to play better. Obviously you'd like to play Denver on the second day and after they have a tough game on the first day."

Cerino said all that really matters was that his team had an opportunity to play for a championship.

"Getting in to championship weekend is key," he said. "As long as the door is still a little open, we're going to keep fighting."

Achievable milestones in Week 14

The main goal for most players is to win the MLL Championship. A few individuals, however, who coincidentally enough have already won at least one MLL title, have the chance to accomplish a couple individual milestones of their own.

When the Hamilton Nationals take on the Denver Outlaws, long-pole Brodie Merrill can add to his record career ground ball total. With one more ground-ball pickup Merrill will have 700 for his career.

"He's been defender of the year I don't know how many times, and deservingly so. He makes things happen defensively. He's terrific ," Nationals coach Huntley said. "If Brodie has a really good game ... we have a chance of being successful.

While the Boston Cannons won't be playing for a playoff spot, Chris Eck needs only eight face-off wins for 1000 over the course of his career.

"Chris is a great competitor. He's one of the best in the world," Cannons head coach John Tucker said. "He continues to give us possessions and he grinds away."

Both numbers are very feasible for these very accomplished players. Week 14 could be history in the making and add another note to their very impressive resumes.

Week 14 Preview

Denver Outlaws (13-0) at Hamilton Nationals (9-4)

3 p.m. Saturday; CBS Sports Network

Denver is going for an undefeated regular season and will have to beat a strong Hamilton Nationals team to do so. They will most likely have to do so without 2012 league MVP Brendan Mundorf.

Mundorf sat out last weekend as a precaution to avoid injury. Outlaws head coach Jim Stagnitta would like to remain unbeaten, but his overall goal is to win a league championship and a healthy Mundorf will help reach that goal, but Stagnitta is still optimistic about his team's chances Saturday.

"Mundy's a little banged up. He was a late scratch last weekend," he said. "We've won two weeks in a row with Mundorf not scoring in the game against the Bayhawks and not playing in the last game."

More importantly, Stagnitta has confidence in his team's depth, which will be showcased without Mundorf.

"I think our guys understand and have confidence in each other and the system," he said. "Somebody's going to step up when our guys aren't having their best day. You go week in and week out and different guys step up."

Rochester Rattlers (5-8) at Boston Cannons (5-8)

7 p.m. Saturday; ESPN3

With the Cannons needing a victory to keep pace in the playoff race, Paul Rabil - last season's Offensive Player of the Year - was held scoreless, going 0-for-10 shooting and lowering his shooting mark to 22.1%. The midfielder has only one goal in his past two games and it was the second time since John Tucker took over as head coach Rabil has been held scoreless.

Despite his struggles, Rabil is still only one point behind league leader Chris Bocklet. Tucker believes that Rabil's sports hernia is hampering his effectiveness.

"Paul has been great all season long. He's still one of the top point getters despite playing in my opinion with a very severe injury," Tucker said. "Because of the location of the injury to be able to follow through on his shot is not possible. His velocity might be off."

It's been a frustrating season for all of the Boston Cannons, but Tucker is still pleased with the effort his star player has given.

"He absolutely competes," he said. "He's given us everything he can. I feel for him."

Ohio Machine (2-11) at New York Lizards (3-10)

7 p.m. Saturday; ESPN3

Ohio got a big upset win over the Boston Cannons last weekend, giving Bear Davis his first win as head coach and putting the final nail in the Cannons' playoff hopes. A big part of that victory was the effort given by seldom-seen goalie Scott Rodgers.

A star at Notre Dame, Rodgers struggled in 2012 and hasn't seen consistent playing time at Ohio, playing in only four games this season. He shined against Boston, however, allowing only 11 goals and making 22 saves.

"Scott is a tremendous leader. When you see him it's hard not to remember his great NCAA playoff games. For me, it's like trying to bring the competitive level back out of him," Davis said. "He played out of his mind. I think he's capable of doing that consistently. We have to make sure he believes that."

There's no guarantee he'll start against the Lizards, however, as Davis noted Stefan Schroder has practiced well the past two weeks and Brian Phipps could return this weekend as well.

Charlotte Hounds (7-6) at Chesapeake Bayhawks (8-5)

7 p.m. Saturday; ESPN3

The race for MLL MVP is wide-open, and one player who has made a strong case is Hounds attackman Matt Danowski.

Danowski is fourth in the league in points with 45 points, two away from a career-high. He leads the team in points, goals and is tied for the team lead in two-point goals. He had six goals, including one two-pointer, in Charlotte's playoff clinching victory in Week 13.

"He's been doing that all year. He's been a leader on and off the field," Cerino said. "When we need him to make a play, when you can feel the game turning, that's when Matt will take control. He'll get us a goal to get us the lead then go back to sharing the ball."

Bayhawks head coach Dave Cottle is impressed with Danowski's recent form.

"He is playing like a man who wants to play for the World team," he said.

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