March 21, 2009

Smith: NLL Week 11 Breakdown

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

The hottest team in the National Lacrosse League is Portland, winner of four consecutive games. Although the definition of consecutive is a little shaky, given the realization that the LumberJax (5-3) have played only twice since Feb. 7.

It is difficult to gain momentum -- even during a winning streak -- when a team plays, then is off for three weeks, plays again, then is sidelined another three weeks.

On the plus side, the Jax are rested and injury-free since their last game, a 12-10 victory over Philadelphia on Feb. 28. On the minus side, they might not be as fit or as sharp.

"You can't duplicate game situations when you're off three weeks between games," said head coach Derek Keenan. "It is harder to duplicate anaerobic activity. We started strong against Philadelphia and then we were just hanging on."

The Jax led 5-0 after the first quarter and 7-4 at halftime. By the end of the third quarter, the Wings closed to 9-8. Peter Morgan, Dan Stroup and Ryan Powell scored fourth-quarter goals to edge the visitors.

"We've tried to do some different things to maintain fitness levels," Keenan said of his training program the past three weeks in preparation for a rematch of last May's NLL Champion's Cup final won by Buffalo, 14-13.

It is one of five games on the NLL schedule.

Saturday: Portland at Buffalo (7:30 p.m. Eastern); Rochester at Toronto (7 p.m. Eastern); Colorado at Calgary (7:30 p.m. Mountain); Edmonton at San Jose (7:30 p.m. Pacific).

Sunday: Minnesota at Colorado (6 p.m. Mountain).

The Bandits (7-3) have lost some of their luster amid a two-game losing streak. A defense that caused anxiety league-wide for its relentless pressure has completely collapsed, according to head coach Darris Kilgour.

It is not just the two injuries last Saturday against Rochester that left the Bandits with only six real defenders (two offensive players moved to defense), but it is also poor decision-making out the back door.

"Guys get caught up trying to help each other too much, then they're not doing their own job," Kilgour said. "We're so cautious, we're giving them [opposing forwards] time and space."

Kilgour will increase his defense to nine players against the Jax, subtracting a forward at the other end.

Both teams rely on excellent goaltending, with Matt Disher between the pipes for Portland and Ken Montour outplaying Mike Thompson to gain more time in the previously tandem set-up for Buffalo.

Montour leads the NLL with a 9.81 goals against average and .810 save percentage. Disher is second at 10.01 and .811, respectively.

Put up or shut up for Rock

Rochester (4-5) at Toronto (3-7): The Rock made the biggest trade on Tuesday's deadline, acquiring two-time NLL Goaltender of the Year Steve "Chugger'' Dietrich from Edmonton to back up Bob "Whipper'' Watson.

"We definitely have our backs up against the wall," said general manager Mike Kloepfer.  "Every game has to be a win for us."

The Rock is heartened by a 9-8 upset of Boston, ending the Blazers' league-leading five-game win streak.

"We definitely have to move forward and build on the Boston win and have a huge game with Rochester," Kloepfer said. "Every game is going to be like a playoff game for us."

Head coach Jamie Batley is adjusting the defense to each opponent while striving toward a more productive offense.

"In general, we haven't scored a lot of goals this year," Batley said of the Rock's 11.2 goals scored per game. "Our offense still needs time together and more games together. We need those guys jelling to score more goals."

Rochester is riding a three-game winning streak, following an 0-4 start to the season.

First-year coach Paul Gait cited several reasons for the turnaround.

"Defensively, our team has come together and played well in front of Pat O'Toole," he said. "Add a much improved faceoff percentage the last five games and improved shooting percentage the last five games, and that's due to the chemistry of the offense finally starting to happen."

Shawn Evans, the NLL Player of the Week, is leading a revived offense. In the first six games of the season, he was limited to six goals. In the past three games, he has scored 14 goals, including seven against Toronto.

Evans, a 22-year-old from Peterborough, Ontario, has also scooped 22 loose balls in the past two games.

Riggers go high-risk, high-reward

Colorado (5-4) at Calgary (7-2): The Roughnecks own the NLL's best record, its second-best shooting percentage (.199 to Buffalo's .220) and by far the best power-play conversion rate (62.90 percent and well ahead of second-ranked Philadelphia, 52.17).

Assistant coach Dave Pym credits Calgary's status to focusing on goals and continuing an insatiable work ethic.

"They're the team to beat in the West,'' said Colorado head coach Bob McMahon. "They've been the most consistent."

4;font-weight: normal;"> ;McMahon is concerned by the relentless Calgary defense.

"They play a different style," he said. "It is high risk, high reward. If you're not used to it, you can get double-teamed and give up turnovers. They catch people off guard. Fortunately, we see them usually three times a year and we've been able to scheme against them. But if you're not ready for it, you can get in trouble."

The Mammoth downed Calgary, 13-12, on Feb. 14 in Denver.

"Colorado is up on us in the series, beating us on Valentine's Day, and we know Bob McMahon is technically one of the best in the game. He prepares well," Pym said. "We'll have to bring our ‘A' game because we know Colorado wants this game to finis h first in the West."

Colorado is the only team playing two games this weekend. Since both contests are in the West Division, a sweep could go a long way toward a playoff berth.

"We'd like to create some separation, to pull away from teams below us and clinch that playoff spot as quickly as we can," McMahon said.

The Mammoth is minus all-star defenseman Bruce Murray for the season, due to a dislocated knee cap sustained on the opening faceoff last Saturday against San Jose. Forward Dan Carey, sidelined the past five games, has been practicing with the Mammoth and has been symptom-free, in terms of headaches and dizziness.

Carey might have a treatable optical nerve problem rather than post-concussion symptoms.

"He's making very good progress," said general manager Steve Govett.

A Denver neurologist is treating Carey.

"He's one of the best in his field and he happens to be in Denver, which is lucky for us,'' Govett said. "It has been difficult to diagnose and it was a process of eliminating a lot of things.''

Carey, a former all-star, missed the last five games of the 2008 season and the first-round playoff loss due to post-concussion symptoms.

Levis is No. 1 for the first time

Edmonton (3-7) at San Jose (3-7): By trading Steve Dietrich to Toronto, the Rush made Chris Levis a starting goaltender for the first time in his four-year career, including three years as Gee Nash's backup in Colorado.

"It is a fantastic situation for Chris," Nash said. "He's played for years in the league and, finally, he's getting to be the clear-cut No. 1, which I think he's always deserved."

Edmonton coach and general manager Bob Hamley said: "We are comfortable with Chris and the young fella Brandon Atherton. For whatever reason, we weren't getting it done with Steve, and he's the first to admit it."

Both teams are coming off losses and seeking consistency.

The Stealth added three new defenders Tuesday: Steve Holmes, Shaydon Santos and Andrew Biers, acquired in a trade with the Rush, who had only played him twice.

Buchanan gets bearings in Minnesota

Minnesota (5-5) at Colorado (5-4): The Swarm has won three straight -- all on the road. They come into the Pepsi Center with a revived offense led by Kevin Buchanan, the NLL Rookie of the Week.

During the winning streak, Buchanan, Ohio State's leading scorer in 2008, produced nine goals and nine assists.

"He's given us some options in the offensive zone," said coach Duane Jacobs. "The guy has unbelievable foot speed and foot work. He's really come along in practice. He's applied all of what he's learned, and he has wonderful natural instructs. He's really helped get the offense going."

Just a few weeks ago, Minnesota was 2-5.

"At 2-5, our backs were against the wall," Jacobs said. "I think the guys realized that the season was in jeopardy."


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