April 30, 2009

Smith: NLL Champion's Cup Playoff Preview

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Jeff Shattler and the top-seeded Calgary Roughnecks host surging Colorado at Penngrowth Saddledome on Sunday.

© Cory Shannon

After a week of rest, recovery from injuries, and strategizing, the National Lacrosse League returns to the floor with first-round playoff contests, beginning Friday night with New York hosting Rochester at Madison Square Garden and Portland hosting San Jose at the Rose Garden.

New York won the tiebreaker in a tight East Division race, which ended with the Titans, defending champion Buffalo and expansion Boston posting identical 10-6 records. The Bandits host the Blazers on Saturday.

Calgary, the toast of the West Division with a 12-4 record, will host fourth-seeded Colorado on Sunday afternoon.

The NLL uses a single-elimination format. Here's a game-by-game breakdown of this weekend's divisional semifinals.

Rochester at New York (at Madison Square Garden) - Friday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern

The top-seeded Titans take on a Knighthawks team that squeaked into the playoffs with an 11-8 victory over Philadelphia on the last day of the regular season. Casey Powell is the wild card in this game, the player most likely to score clutch goals or set up key goals to will New York to victory.

Although Powell is a league Most Valuable Player candidate, he won't be the best-known No. 22 in the building. Gary Gait, his predecessor at Syracuse, does not have conflicts with his coaching duties with the Syracuse women, and will be available to help an offense that has struggled to score all season.

Gary's twin brother, Paul, Rochester's first-year coach, was as candid as usual when asked about the inconsistency of the offense.

"I think it has been pretty consistent -- we've been consistently scoring under 10 goals a game," he said chuckling. "We are a defensive team."

In fact, the final NLL Player of the Week honor went to the Knighthawks' defensive leader, goaltender Pat O'Toole.

While the offense remains a concern, Gait's preparation centered on evaluating why his team struggles so mightily on the road, as in 1-7.

"That is actually the bulk of my concern," he said. "When you look at us on the road, we have a different identity. That is the focus the last two weeks: how do we bring the team that plays well at home on the road?"

Gait, a Hall of Fame player in his first coaching position at any level, has no difficulty putting himself in the shoes of lesser talented players and valuing the intangibles in his search for a way to improve road play.

"It probably has to do with players bonding and team chemistry," he said. "These guys need to feel comfortable and have a good energy level when they show up."

On the other side, the Titans have won five of their last six games, relying on a balanced approach, led on the offensive end by Powell and the back end by goaltender Matt Vinc.

Ed Comeau, in his first year coaching the Titans, is well aware that in a one-game playoff, seeding might not mean much.

"We know that once the playoffs start, all the counters are pushed back to zero," Comeau said. "It is win or go home. The team that executes better is going to be the one that continues."

San Jose at Portland - Friday, 7:30 p.m. Pacific

The strengths of these two teams are likely to clash -- San Jose's deep and talented offense against Portland's big, physical defense in front of goaltender Matt Disher, who has recovered from a knee injury.

"They probably have the overall best offensive talent in the league," Portland coach Derek Keenan said of San Jose. "You do a job on [Colin] Doyle and look around, and six to seven others can perform. We need our best defensive performance, to limit them inside and limit our mistakes."

Doyle led the NLL with 111 points, including 38 goals, and Rhys Duch scored 35 goals with 53 assists to set a rookie scoring record of 89 points and position himself for the NLL Rookie of the Year award. With 32 goals, Jeff Zywicki is also a threat.

"They're a big offensive team," Keenan said. "There are some teams that don't match up against us because of our size, but they are big too on offense. I think it is strength against strength."

Portland won the season series with a 2-1 mark. After elevating Chris Hall to head coach and adding two key defensemen, San Jose finished the season strong, winning three of its last four games.

"Our confidence level is good," Hall said. "We're healthy right now, which is a good thing heading into the playoffs."

The Stealth's slow start forced them to make up ground in the standings, putting them in a higher intensity, near-playoff mode early.

Rookie Tyler Richards emerged as keeper down the stretch and might start against the Jax. Veteran Matt Roik split time with Richards in the final regular-season game, a 15-11 loss at Toronto, to stay sharp for the playoffs.

"We haven't made decision on who will start," Hall said. "It will be Roik or Richards, and we know both are ready."

Boston at Buffalo - Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern

Psychologically, the Blazers might have the upper hand -- despite playing on the road in front of the NLL's largest crowd -- due to their 13-12 overtime triumph against the defending champion Bandits in Buffalo on the last day of the regular season.

Don't discount Buffalo's championship experience, however. Despite coach Darris Kilgour's prodding, his players don't always keep opponents down in the regular season. Their 2-3 record down the stretch is a case in point -- including the season finale, considering Buffalo coughed up a 10-5 lead.

"Our finish was not the best," Kilgour said. "The defense was shaky."

Turning the page, Kilgour said emphasized discipline to his players. "We really try to put everything behind us and start on a fresh page," he said. "It is more a mental thing with us, and that's all fixable."

Kilgour also warned against over-reliance on Mark Steenhuis and John Tavares, the NLL's scoring leaders with 51 goals each.

"We need 60 minutes out of everybody, not just Mark and John," Kilgour said. "We're really excited to get the chance to show we can we can play better."

Boston's defense, backed by veteran goaltender Anthony Cosmo, has the challenge of facing both top guns, and Mike Accursi, a 30-goal scorer.

"It is not easy," said Blazers coach Tom Ryan. "We just want to get our matchups and not give anything easy. We want to make them work for their opportunities."

The Blazers' offense counters with Dan Dawson (30 goals, league-record 74 assists shared with Calgary's Josh Sanderson), a league MVP candidate, like Steenhuis and Tavares.

Dawson and Cosmo have helped the young squad realize that it can compete with any team in the league.

Following a 2-3 start, Ryan believes the turning point came against New York on Feb. 7, when the Blazers scored two goals in the final 10 seconds to win, 9-8.

"That was a real confidence-builder," he said. "To come back and win the game in that fashion let guys believe we were a good team and we can beat anybody."

Colorado at Calgary - Sunday, 3 p.m. Mountain

These teams met just twice, splitting the season series. While the Mammoth remain plagued by injury and their 7-9 record pales next to the NLL-best 12-4 mark of the Roughnecks, they do have a few things in their favor.

For starters, Colorado has played at a high level down the stretch, due to its desperation to make the playoffs.

"We're pretty happy with our performance the last three weeks, and we hope we can carry it over to this weekend," said Mammoth coach Bob McMahon.

Although Colorado lost two of the last three, both losses were in overtime. Perhaps the offense has learned from its mistakes in both sudden-death periods and will employ more of a cutting, quick-passing style to generate better opportunities.

Another plus is the return of Dan Carey. After missing the past two and a half months with a concussion and a nerve injury in his eye, he returned for the final game, the playoff clincher against Edmonton.

Carey, a former all-star, lacked timing and wasn't as aggressive, but he's had two weeks since then to sharpen his game and improve his conditioning. His return boosts an offense that has had difficulty scoring all season.

The defense has played well all season, with goaltender Andrew Leyshon replacing Gee Nash, out since the early season with a back injury. Injuries have hurt its depth, however.  All-star defenseman Bruce Murray sustained a season-ending knee injury in the ninth game, and Rich Catton and Ray Guze were both injured in the season finale against Edmonton.

Catton, who underwent a new procedure to speed the recovery of a knee sprain, will be a game-day decision against Calgary. Guze has a broken thumb, an injury he played with in the second half against the Rush after Catton was helped off the floor. He is questionable for Sunday.

Calgary boasts two of the best set-up men in the NLL, Sanderson, who tied Dawson for the single-season assists record with 74, and Tracey Kelusky (53 assists). Also, Kaleb Toth piled up 47 helpers. Second-year sensation Dane Dobbie led a group of seven double-digit scorers with 41 goals.

The Riggers boast the league's best power play unit, converting at 60.18 percent, so McMahon is stressing the need to stay out of the penalty box. While the Mammoth boasts the NLL's No. 2 penalty kill unit at 59.30 percent, they have proved susceptible in transition and allowed a league-high 13 short-handed goals.

Calgary will go with either Matt King or Pat Campbell in goal. They represent the best tandem in the league and play a similar style with similar statistics, although King is undefeated at 7-0.

"We've got two guys we're comfortable with putting between the pipes," said assistant coach Dave Pym. "Our guys are chomping at the bit to get going."

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