April 16, 2009

NLL Playoff Push: Five Fight for Two

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

In an indication of the parity projected for the National Lacrosse League -- especially with the folding of the Chicago franchise on the eve of the season -- five teams go into the final weekend of play with a chance to clinch a postseason berth.

Philadelphia (7-8) travels to Rochester (6-9) on Saturday for the final place in the East Division.

Colorado (6-9) can earn a West Division berth with a victory over visiting Edmonton (5-10) on Friday. The Rush can proceed if it defeats Colorado and Minnesota (6-9) loses to New York on Saturday. The Swarm advances if it defeats New York and Colorado loses to Edmonton.

There's plenty to play for at the top end of the standings too, at least in the East.

Buffalo (10-5) is assured a first-round home game and can capture the division regular-season crown with a victory over visiting Boston on Saturday or a Titans loss to the Swarm.

New York (9-6) can claim the division crown by defeating Minnesota and a Buffalo loss to Boston. The Titans can gain home-floor advantage in the first round with a win or a Blazers loss to the Bandits.

Boston (9-6) cannot win the division, but it can gain home floor in the first round with a win over Buffalo and a New York loss to the Swarm.

In the West, division champion Calgary (11-4) will play host to the No. 4 seed. No. 2 seed Portland (9-6) will play host to third-seeded San Jose (7-8).

Here's a look at the teams still in the hunt, as well as Stealth star Colin Doyle's return to Toronto:

Edmonton at Colorado

The injury-riddled Mammoth has lost four consecutive games, the past two in overtime.

Goaltender Andrew Leyshon, promoted to starter in the injury absence of former all-star Gee Nash, has been terrific, but an offense that struggles to score and lacks transition scoring (although improved against San Jose) has put the team in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since moving to Colorado in 2003.

Players who are spread across North America, from British Columbia to Denver to Toronto to the East Coast, have spent the preparation week, as usual, in contact via e-mail.

"There are always e-mails, whether it is witty banner or serious conversation about upcoming games,'' said team captain Gavin Prout. "We've done it since game one, trying to break down the positives of each game and where we can improve on the negatives. We're trying to do the same thing right now, determining where we can attack Edmonton.

"We're not focusing on the past two games; we've had tough games, two overtime losses. They could have gone either way and we could be 8-7 and everything could be great.

"It is a game of inches and a game of decisions. One poor decision can make or break our year next game. We don't want to be walking on egg shells, but we also want to put our best foot forward and really prepare for this game, because if something goes wrong, it could be the last game of our 2009 campaign, and that's something none of us want. I think everyone is really working hard in the gym, really working hard off the floor."

One positive for the offense is the return from injury of Chris Gill, a constant threat on the power play who is coming off a season-high four goals last Saturday against San Jose.

Gill, a former Rush player, is shooting a sizzling .385 and has scored six of his 15 goals with the man advantage. He is the only Mammoth double-figure goal scorer with a high shooting percentage; the next best is Prout's .175.

Edmonton coach Bob Hamley draws optimism from his squad's victory in Denver's Pepsi Center for the first time, earlier this season, and a Rush triumph over Colorado in February in Edmonton.

Rush goaltender Chris Levis, a former Mammoth keeper, was outstanding in both games. Moreover, the Rush is heartened by better recent play, despite a one-goal loss to Calgary last weekend.

"We've had some solid systems in place ever since the trade deadline," Levis said. "The mood of the team is really good. It is where it needs to be going into the latter part of the season and potentially the playoffs."

As Levis knows, Mammoth fans have stayed loud and loyal despite the worst season in franchise history, including a 3-4 home record.

"It is typical Colorado, the fans are some of the best in the league,'' he said. "It is tough to play there and they have a good team. They'll do their due diligence to prepare for us, and they are also a hungry team after big losses the last couple games in overtime. And that's also a team that has never missed the playoffs since they've been in Colorado, so there's a little bit of pride there. So I expect them to play pretty hard, and I think the fans of Colorado will support them in that."

Since being pummeled 22-10 by Calgary on March 13, Edmonton has lost one-goal games to San Jose and Calgary, a two-goal game to Minnesota, and defeated Toronto and Portland.

"It takes a little while for a younger team to believe in themselves and each other," Levis said.

"Over the last four to five games, we've played well and we're starting to trust in each other a little more. As games go on and stay tight, they don't have to look to themselves to get the job done, they can look down the bench to any of the guys. We have a  lot of capable players and a lot of championship pedigree in Edmonton. Guys are trusting in that and we are playing as a team instead of individuals."

Levis has been on a hot streak, which he credits to the defense.

"I haven't done anything differently," he said. "I'm as boring and as routine as it gets. I have the same thing I've done probably the last 10 years. More than anything else, the defensive system installed the last five to six games have helped me see the ball better."

Philadelphia at Rochester

As Rochester coach Paul Gait predicted, the final playoff berth would come down to this last day of the season.

The Knighthawks started the season 0-4 and regrouped with the return to health of goaltender Pat O'Toole and an offense that tried to compensate for the absence of superstars John Grant Jr. and Scott Evans, both of whom sustained severe knee injuries prior to the start of the season.

Philadelphia also started slowly, minus injured scoring leader Athan Iannucci, the 2008 NLL Most Valuable Player. The Wings also lost the NLL's faceoff leader, Geoff Snider, for 28 days due to a fractured trachea, and they've dealt all season with the illness of assistant coach Chris Sanderson, who has brain cancer.

"We've been through so much adversity with Athan being hurt, myself being hurt, and with what's gone on with Chris, we deserve a win," Snider said. "Rochester's a great team with Gary Gait, Shawn Williams, Shawn Evans and Pat O'Toole, so we're going to have a tight game in front of us."

The Wings are coming off a 16-14 win over Toronto in which Merrick Thomson won NLL Offensive Player of the Week honors for three goals, five assists and five loose balls.

The key against the Knighthawks is turning it into a track meet, according to Snider.

"We're real athletic, a great team full of awesome athletes, so we've got to run as fast as we can," Snider said.

Iannucci wasn't accurate against the Rock -- 3-for-16 -- but is starting to show glimpses of his MVP abilities.

"We were talking about it the other day, Kyle Sweeney and myself," Snider said. "The guy does things that other people just can't do; one leg or two legs, it doesn't matter, I think he can continue to do those things. He's an athlete and a superstar. We certainly need him to play like a superstar to win, I think he's up for it and I think he's certainly going to do it."

Rochester, coming off a winless, two-game road trip, is happy to be back in Blue Cross Arena, where it has won five games.

"I'm certainly glad we're not on the road," said coach Paul Gait.

Gait, refreshingly blunt, didn't hesitate to put pressure on his twin brother, 41-year-old Hall of Famer Gary Gait, who ended a three-year retirement to play for the Knighthawks this season.

"I expect to see a tense game and I'm counting on Gary to have one of his better games," Paul said. "He tends to play better at home."

Gary played in only one of the weekend games, going 0-for-8 against Boston.

The Gait twins used to play for the Wings; now they must get past them to reach the playoffs.

"Obviously, there's a lot of history with Gary and I and the Philadelphia Wings, and quite a history with Dave Huntley," Paul said of the Wings' coach.

Along with playing with Huntley in the past, Gary Gait recently announced a return to Major League Lacrosse and the Toronto Nationals, coached by Huntley.

Still, Paul Gait said they could put aside affinity for the Wings.
"Actually, it is easy to put the old feelings for the Wings aside,” he said. "It is a new generation of kids. That's the past; that's history, we're trying to create a new future for Rochester.”

Paul is hopeful that the future holds a more potent offensive attack.

"Our defense plays well, where we let down is on the offensive end,” he said. "Scoring only five goals last weekend was a major disappointment.”

That offensive slump in the 10-5 loss to Boston included an 0-for-5 mark on the power play and no goals from scoring leaders Shawn Evans or Shawn Williams.

New York at Minnesota

Because Colorado plays Friday, Minnesota's players will know prior to the game whether they are playing for a playoff berth or playing for pride Saturday when they host New York.

"I think [the Titans] are a tough challenge, but I think the guys will rise to the occasion, and I'm just hoping that the game has some playoff implications to it,” said Minnesota coach Duane Jacobs.

With losses in four of its last five games, Minnesota has struggled to score, averaging 9.5 goals in that stretch until last Saturday, when it broke through for 14, but allowed Portland to score 19.

Only one double-figure scorer, Dan Marohl at .205, is shooting over .179, and the Swarm power play is the league's worst at 36.59 percent.

Doyle returns to Toronto

Stealth forward Colin Doyle is in contention for two single-season marks when he makes his first return to Toronto, his lacrosse home for eight seasons with the Rock, including five NLL titles.

Doyle, in his third season with San Jose, tied the single-season assist record of 71 on Saturday in an overtime victory against Colorado. He scored three of the Stealth's four fourth-quarter goals, including the one that forced overtime.

Doyle can easily break the NLL single-season assists record Saturday, but Boston’s Dan Dawson (69 assists) and Sanderson (67 assists for Calgary) are also pursuing the mark. The single-season points record is also a possibility, with Doyle nine points shy of the 115 racked up by Buffalo's John Tavares in 2001.
"Colin hasn't talked about it too much,” said San Jose coach Chris Hall. "I know he's happy to play there in front of lots of family and friends; he was soliciting for extra tickets.

"It'll be nice for him to play in the ACC (Air Canada Centre) and have a shot at the record, but he's a team guy. He's not focused on records. It is in the back of his mind, but he's far more focused on the team.

"To break the record would be phenomenal, given where we were for him to carry the team all this time, even though other teams focus on him. I think it speaks well to the fact of how good a player he is that he's in the position he's in.”

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