February 10, 2010

NLL: Titans' Offense Forces Foes to Pick Poison

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Casey Powell's unpredictability keeps goalies guessing, one of several factors that makes Orlando's offense difficult to defend.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

A give-and-go from behind the net, another from the wing, a dizzying motion offense creating a cut-fake-shot from the slot -- the Titans' playbook is creative, diverse and reliable.

The key behind this entertaining, high-powered National Lacrosse League offense is a mixture of players with varied skill sets, an unselfish attitude and that enigmatic intangible: chemistry.

It starts with Casey Powell and is enhanced by Pat Maddalena, Jordan Hall, Ryan Boyle and Mike McLellan.

Colorado goaltender Chris Levis sought to contain Orlando's offense last Friday night. Following a mid-week trade from Calgary, he was summoned from his perch at the end of the bench to replace Andrew Leyshon. Just three minutes into the contest, Maddalena scored with a high, far side shot off Hall's feed, McLellan buried a shot off a give-and-go with Maddalena and Powell threaded the ball in a one-foot slice of space between the side post and Leyshon's shoulder.

"They're one of the few teams that is dangerous in all areas on the offensive end," Levis observed. "They have guys who can shoot, guys who can cut, and guys who can finish on the crease. They are good at setting picks. They don't cheat. They make you work hard, and if you make a mistake on the back end, they definitely expose those mistakes."

Powell is the ultimate exploiter, as dangerous with a pass as with a shot, and a player goalkeepers cannot read, even after film study.

"Forwards seem to have tendencies, one way or another," Levis said. "Casey never seems to do that. He always seems to mix it up; he gives you a lot of different looks. He drives down the side. He drives over the top. The next thing you know, he's in the middle. He's definitely a guy that can expose weaknesses on the defensive end, and he does it a lot single-handedly. We did a relatively good job on Casey and got beat by everyone else."

Against Colorado, Powell finished with three goals and three assists, Boyle matched his stat line, McLellan scored two goals and Hall and Maddalena each scored once and combined for nine assists.

While the Titans' 3-1 start is not as flashy as undefeated Washington (6-0), and they haven't played as many games as Eastern Division leader Toronto (5-1), all signs indicate a return pursuit of the Champions' Cup, a run that ended with a 12-10 loss to Calgary in the finale on May 15, 2009.

The explosiveness of the offense has a direct effect on the defense, taking the edge off.

In their 12-5 victory over Colorado, goaltender Matt Vinc parlayed early defensive acuity and the offensive cushion to a 52-save performance. He allowed only two goals through the first three quarters and 11 minutes, 36 seconds into the final quarter. After allowing goal No. 3, the next two he gave up were while Colorado deployed an extra attacker.

"Our defense did a good job of staying on their hands, so we didn't give them high-percentage shots early, and then we scored a bunch of goals," Vinc said. "That makes my job easier, seeing a seven-or eight-goal lead. I can take a little rest and over-exaggerate my saves. Overall, I'm just a little more comfortable with a big lead."

In all three victories this season, Vinc and his defense have allowed no more than three goals in any first half. With an 8.55 goals against average, Vinc ranks second in the NLL, trailing Toronto's Bob Watson (7.68).

Quick hook

Mammoth coach Steve Govett, the eighth-year general manager who fired Bob McMahon after an 0-2 start and replaced him with himself, wasted no time, 3:03 to be exact, to pull Leyshon for Levis.

"Momentum is momentum," Levis said. "And I think some coaches look at the momentum of the game and make changes based on that, and other coaches look for their goalie to play bad. I don't think it was anything Leys (Leyshon) was doing. I think it was just a momentum move. It did spark the team, but unfortunately, we couldn't bury it on the other end.''

Major collision

Levis gave Colorado fans, who have yet to see a home win this season, something to cheer about.

While trying to beat Pat Merrill to a loose ball, Levis wound up knocking Merrill to the floor.

"I don't get to run for many loose balls," Levis said. "I must be getting slow in my old age because I thought I had the leg on him and he got to it first. So plan B was to take him down any way possible, so I ended up doing that."

In his second tour with the Mammoth, Levis was grateful for the fan support.

"To have fans still cheering when we're down 12-2 and sticking around to the end, the guys in the [locker] room need to realize that that's not the case around the league. We need to
pick it up," he said

One area where Colorado (2-4) can start: the power play is 0-for-9 in the past two games.

Rookie Rocks

Toronto rookie Garrett Billings is tied with Washington's Jeff Zywicki for the league goals lead with 17. Billings has flourished along side veteran Colin Doyle, who became the third player in NLL history to score 1,000 regular-season points, joining Buffalo's John Tavares and Rochester's Gary Gait in a very exclusive club.

Billings holds onto a share of the goal-scoring lead fresh off a one-goal game that showed his passing talents -- he dished out a career-high eight assists, boosting his point total to 38, tied with Doyle and Calgary's Josh Sanderson, for No. 2 behind Zywicki's impressive 43.

Billings, 24, is a former Virginia standout from Langley, British Columbia, where he won Minto Cup titles with the Burnaby Lakers, and now stars for the Langley Thunder.

The week that was

Washington remained undefeated behind an eight-point night from Zywicki; Calgary bounced back; Toronto went 2-0 for the weekend by blowing out Philadelphia and celebrating Doyle's 1,000th point by beating Buffalo; and Boston surged to its third straight win.

Week 5 scores (with links to recaps):

Calgary 13, Edmonton 8
Washington 12, Minnesota 9
Toronto 19, Philadelphia 11
Toronto 14, Buffalo 10
Boston 14, Rochester 8

The week ahead

Toronto pulls another two-fer this weekend, looking to extend its East Division lead with games at home Friday against Edmonton and on the road Sunday at Calgary.

Week 6 schedule (all times Eastern):

Edmonton at Toronto - Friday, 7:30 p.m.
Boston at Rochester - Saturday, 2:05 p.m.
Buffalo at Philadelphia - Saturday, 7 p.m.
Washington at Minnesota - Saturday, 8:35 p.m.
Toronto at Calgary - Sunday, 6:30 p.m.

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