April 10, 2009

NLL Playoff Push: West Division Breakdown

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Five teams are scrambling for three remaining playoff berths in the West Division, as the National Lacrosse League regular season ticks down to two weekends.

Calgary is the only team to have clinched a berth. Last-place Edmonton is a long shot, second-place Portland a strong shot, and Colorado, San Jose and Minnesota are tied for third.

There are four games this weekend involving West teams:

Friday: Portland (7-6) at Calgary (10-3), 7:30 p.m. Mountain.

Saturday:  Portland (7-6) at Minnesota (6-8), 7 p.m. Central; San Jose (6-8) at Colorado (6-8), 7 p.m. Mountain; Calgary (10-3) at Edmonton (5-8), 7:30 p.m. Pacific.

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

1. Calgary (10-3) needs one win or one Portland loss to clinch West Division crown.

Many teams might not recover from a 7-1 deficit, but the Roughnecks appear to be elite this season. They overcame the frustration of Rochester goaltender Pat O'Toole turning away their best shots to take even better shots -- their league-leading power play produced two goals before halftime and another in the third quarter -- and prevailed 12-9.

"We stuck with the game plan, kept our foot on the gas, and it turned out in our favor," said assistant coach Dave Pym.

The Roughnecks they believe they are a team of destiny.

"We'd love nothing more than to have the Champion's Cup come through Calgary," Pym said.

2. Portland (7-6) needs a victory in one of two games this weekend to secure a playoff berth. The LumberJax can guarantee at least second place and a home playoff game with a victory over Minnesota.

Portland is the only team in the West with three games remaining, and two are against division leader Calgary.

The Jax would like to have injured standout goaltender Matt Disher for the stretch run.

"He's getting better, but we're not sure yet about either game, so we'll evaluate him Friday morning," said coach Derek Keenan. "He'll be on the trip and ready to go."

Matt Flindell, a 21-year-old rookie from Victoria, British Columbia, played well in Disher's absence, making 49 saves in a 13-12 overtime victory against Colorado last Saturday.

Brodie Merrill earned NLL Transition Player of the Week honors for his efforts in the split, including an 11-10 loss to Edmonton. Merrill scored five goals, made three assists and picked up 22 loose balls.

3. San Jose (6-8) earns playoff berth with a win over Colorado.

The Stealth are surging at the right time, winning three of their last four games, including an 18-goal effort in an 18-8 win over Minnesota.

"We seem to be firing on all cylinders," said coach Chris Hall.

The league general managers and coaches recognized those efforts with three weekly awards going to Stealth players.

Colin Doyle (three goals, 10 assists) was Offensive Player of the Week, Tyler Richards (46 saves, eight goals allowed) was Defensive Player of the Week, and Rhys Duch (five goals, three assists) was Rookie of the Week.

While Doyle and Duch have led a powerful offense all season, the surge is timed to the coaching change -- Hall took over for Jeff Dowling -- and the acquisition of defenders Shaydon Santos and Steve Holmes.

"San Jose has played very, very well the last two weeks,'' said Colorado coach Bob McMahon. "They seem to be peaking at the right time of the year."

4. Colorado (6-8) earns a playoff berth with a win over San Jose and an Edmonton loss to Calgary.

In their quest for the playoffs, the Mammoth have the advantage of playing their last two games at home with loud, loyal fans, but the disadvantage of lacking momentum. They've lost three consecutive games, and the offense lacks consistency and potency.

The transition game rarely produces goals, and one of its best members, Jed Prossner, had to move to forward to shore up depleted ranks. All-stars Brian Langtry and Gavin Prout are shouldering a heavy offensive burden.

"They've been consistent throughout the year," McMahon said. "I never like to say people carry you, but they've been good every night."

In the overtime loss to Portland, the pair combined for seven goals, six assists and 27 loose balls. Langtry's 35 goals this season place him in a tie for fourth in the league and represent a career high.  The previous best for the field-bred American player was 31 goals in 2007.

As with the Rochester loss the previous night, the Mammoth couldn't score early and fell behind, 5-1. A lack of proper warm-up could have been a factor. The Mammoth-LumberJax game was delayed by 30 minutes because equipment for approximately 12 Colorado players was left by the airlines at Denver International Airport. The next direct flight arrived after the game, so the gear was loaded on a flight connecting through Salt Lake City.

A furious rally, capped by Prout's goal on a feed from Langtry, forced the overtime. Andrew Leyshon, who was terrific in goal in relief of Curtis Palidwor, turned away four shots in overtime, but could not get in front of Peter Jacobs' rebound shot four minutes, nine seconds into the extra session.

So much was riding on one goal. If Colorado had scored in OT, the change would have been drastic.

"We would have had the tie breaker with Portland and been the only team with seven wins, other than Calgary," McMahon said. "Now, it is so difficult the next two weeks."

McMahon maintained his composure after being denied on a coaches' challenge of a fourth-quarter goal that counted for Portland's Tim Campeau.

"I still don't think the ball went in the net," he said. "The issue wasn't the guy lying in the crease. If it did go in the net, it went in late and the guy was lying in the crease. I was dumbfounded."
5. Minnesota (6-8) needs wins in both remaining games to make the playoffs.

The Swarm is streaky, enduring a five-game losing streak, a three-game winning streak, and a three-game losing streak.

Following the 18-8 loss to San Jose last Friday, Minnesota defeated Edmonton, 9-7.

A factor in the Swarm's favor: two home games.

"But we haven't really taken advantage of [home floor]," said coach Duane Jacobs of a 2-4 record at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. "We have gotten good crowds."

6. Edmonton (5-9) needs to win its remaining two games and rely on losses by others.

The Rush is surging at the right time, although lacking consistency with a weekend upset of Portland, 11-10, followed by a 9-7 loss to Minnesota last week.

"Obviously, we wanted a different result," said coach Bob Hamley. "Chris Levis was the story for us all weekend; he was fabulous."

Levis made 43 saves against Portland.

"We were outplayed in the first half by Portland, and Chris stemmed the tide," Hamley said.

Levis stopped 40 shots by the Swarm, but Rush shooters couldn't consistently bury the ball despite getting off 76 shots.

"We couldn't finish," Hamley said. "But we can't be unhappy with the effort; the guys really came to play."

Saturday's game against Calgary is the first meeting since Edmonton was decimated by the Roughnecks' 22-10 on March 13.

After joking that he had forgotten about that game, Hamley said:  "We're very encouraged by the last three weeks, but we've got our work cut out for us against the best in the West."

Rather than go into a tailspin after that loss, the Rush regrouped, winning two of its next four games. The losses were by a combined three goals.

"We took it as a challenge after that," Hamley said. "Pride is a factor."

The Battle for Alberta gets plenty of attention.

"There's lots at stake,'' Hamley said. "You don't have to go far to read about it in the newspaper or on the Internet or hear about it on the radio."

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