April 10, 2009

NLL Playoff Push: East Division Breakdown

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

And then there was one.

Only one playoff berth remains in the East Division with two weekends left in the National Lacrosse League regular season.

Toronto, Rochester and Philadelphia are battling for the final berth in the East.

Buffalo, Boston and New York already claimed postseason spots and are looking to either clinch the division or second place for home floor advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

There are four games on the weekend schedule involving East teams:

Friday: Rochester (6-7) at Buffalo (9-4), 7:30 p.m. Eastern.
Saturday: Toronto (5-9) at Philadelphia (6-8), 7:30 p.m. Eastern;  
Buffalo (9-4) at New York (8-6), 7:30 p.m. Eastern; Rochester (6-7) at Boston (8-6), 7:30 p.m. Eastern.

Here's a look at each East Division team, including playoff possibilities and division-clinching scenarios as the quest for the Champion's Cup intensifies:

1. Buffalo (9-4), the defending NLL champion, can secure the division title with a victory over New York or at least second-place -- assuring a home playoff game -- with at least one win this weekend.

The Bandits play their first back-to-back games of the season, a rarity in a league that has scheduling dibs at arenas after the NBA, NHL and major concerts.

While coach Darris Kilgour has abandoned his rotating goalie tandem in recent weeks -- playing the hot hand in NLL leader Ken Montour (9.27 goals against average) -- he said he's likely to give Montour a rest on Saturday and start Mike Thompson (12.57).

"Our next goal is to win the first game this weekend, then worry about the win Saturday," Kilgour said. "It is a very tough division. We could end up in the middle of the pack, so we're really focused on winning the next game. We're looking at going into the playoffs playing the best lacrosse we can."

NLL all-time scoring leader John Tavares earned Player of the Week honors for his superb performance in the Bandits' 15-11 win over Boston. Tavares scored six goals and added three assists. He is shooting in the rarefied percentage of .368. He ranks second in the league with 42 goals behind teammate Mark Steenhuis with 45.

2. New York (8-6) can earn at least a second-place finish and home playoff game with a win over Buffalo and a Boston loss.

The Titans have been bolstered by Casey Powell, who returned from injury to help them win two of the last three games, including a victory over the Bandits in Buffalo and a 16-13 win last Sunday against Philadelphia.

Titans assistant general manager Jimmy Butler pointed out that Powell's inspiration was not limited to his usual scoring and passing.

"Casey took the team on his shoulders when things looked bleak for us," he said of the second half Sunday, when the Titans trailed by four goals.

In a key play, Powell battled along the boards in pursuit of a loose ball.

"Casey did a great job getting that loose ball," Butler said. "He gives so much effort. His teammates saw his desire and drive. Casey just pulled us along and has an uncanny knack for scoring a goal at the right time."

Powell finished with five goals, three assists and seven loose balls -- seven of his eight points were scored in the second-half rally -- and third-year forward Brendan Mundorf, who continues to make a strong transition from the field game, netted three goals with three helpers.

Throughout the game, the Wings' Geoff Snider dominated faceoffs, winning 30 of 34, in the absence of New York ace Stephen Peyser.

Peyser is expected to play against Buffalo.

3. Boston (8-6) is seeking a home playoff berth.

"We're trying to play the best lacrosse we can and correct the mistakes we've made the last few weeks," said coach Tom Ryan.

In this week's opponent, Rochester, Ryan has a fan in Knighthawks' first-year coach Paul Gait.

"I have to congratulate Tommy," Gait said. "He has a phenomenal team, great goaltending, good offense and defense."

The Blazers are coming off a 15-11 loss to defending champion Buffalo. Mike Poulin made only seven saves on the first 16 Bandits' shots and was replaced by stalwart Anthony Cosmo.

"If Cosmo started the game, I think it would have been a different game," said Buffalo coach Darris Kilgour.

Perhaps, but Ryan has the luxury of developing goaltending depth.

"We started Mike Poulin on Saturday because we wanted to get him a start, and back-to-back nights are the best opportunity for that," Ryan said. "Mike is good enough to be a starter in this league, and so despite having Cosmo, we want to get Poulie some minutes."

Poulin showed his skills against West Division leader Calgary on Feb. 22, holding the Roughnecks to 10 goals.

4. Philadelphia (6-8) earns a playoff berth with victories in both remaining games.

The Wings are coming off a split with New York and are in the best position to clinch the final playoff berth, due to being in control of their destiny.

They are coming off a disappointing second half against the Titans. After leading 8-4, they lost 16-13.

"Last year, four teams from this division were all at 10-6, so it's very competitive," said coach Dave Huntley. "They are all good teams. We've just got to take care of business."

The return to health of Athan Iannucci, the 2008 NLL Most Valuable Player, and all-star Geoff Snider has boosted the Wings, but the role players who gained extra floor time in their place are also better.

"Hopefully, it will carry forward the rest of the year," Huntley said.

Second-year forward Merrick Thomson has stepped into the leading scorer role, scoring 36 goals, third-best in the league and already 10 more than last season.

5. Rochester (6-7) needs two wins, plus a Philadelphia loss to Toronto, to get into the playoffs.

"Ultimately, I think it is going to come back to the game on the 18th against Philly," said Paul Gait.

Gait, a first-year coach, was the picture of a veteran coach last Friday night, leading his team to its first road victory, 12-8 over Colorado. Gait used timeouts wisely, including one to draw up a play for a goal at the end of the quarter, and was quick to make adjustments throughout the game. His aggressive approach in transition contributed to two shorthanded goals and a pair by Chris Schiller.

"I've certainly gained a level of confidence, but it really is the players' confidence," Gait said. "It makes coaching easy. If it appears as though I'm comfortable, it is because the players are making me feel that way during the game."

Paul's twin brother, Gary, who missed last weekend's games due to coaching commitments with the Syracuse University women's team, will be available for the stretch run.

"Gary will play Friday for sure," Paul said. "If he stays healthy, he will play Saturday."
The key against Boston is execution and energy, according to Paul Gait.

"We're going to be all over loose balls," he said.

A team that started the season 0-4, minus injured superstars John Grant Jr. and Scott Evans and since recovered goaltender Pat O'Toole, would defy odds by making the playoffs.

"O'Toole is the key to our defense, and the offense jelled as a group," Gait said. "We don't have a lot of superstars or a real go-to guy. We're just trying to move the ball and create opportunities off-ball."

Team scoring leader Shawn Williams (24g, 54a) surpassed the 800-point mark in his career last weekend.

6. Toronto (5-9) needs to win its last two games, combined with loses by Philadelphia and Rochester, to qualify for the playoffs.

Despite the long odds, the Rock cannot be counted out. Coach Jamie Batley's team showed resilience with a three-game winning streak down the stretch, then lost the last two, including a 14-13 loss to Boston.

After traveling to play Philadelphia on Saturday, the Rock plays host to San Jose, marking the return of former Rock star Colin Doyle.

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