February 25, 2010

NLL: Difficult to Discern Contenders, Pretenders

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Buoyed by consecutive wins after a 1-4 start, the Minnesota Swarm still lags behind NLL West Division leaders.

© Adam Borgstahl

The jostling for positions continues, like so many checks into the boards. But with the National Lacrosse League season at its midpoint, several positions have become clear.

Toronto (6-3), Rochester (5-3), Orlando (3-2) and Boston (4-4) are contenders in the East Division.

Washington (6-2), Edmonton (4-3) and Calgary (4-3) are contenders in the West Division.

Buffalo (2-5) and Philadelphia (1-6) are all but out of the East Division race. Minnesota (3-4 after consecutive victories) and Colorado (2-5) are likely also-rans in the West. Or aren't they?

Of the four in the wrong end of the standings, the Swarm could reach .500 this weekend with a victory at Colorado. Though its surge is more of a scheduling factor than a competitive factor, Minnesota was the first team to knock Washington from the unbeaten ranks.

Balance is the byword among the contenders. Exhibit A: the longest game in NLL history -- Boston’s double-overtime victory Saturday in Orlando. What better way to sell the sport in the Sunshine State than a hotly-contested match featuring stellar goaltenders? The Blazers’ Anthony Cosmo and the Titans' Matt Vinc were sensational.

In just his fourth game of the season, Sean Morris scored the game-winner, his fourth goal of the season.

With the victory, the Blazers climbed to .500 after an 0-3 start.

Uncertain Stealth

The once-invincible Washington Stealth has lost two straight games. It doesn't get any easier with Saturday’s game at Boston, especially since the status of defensemen Mike Grimes and Matt Beers remains uncertain. Both players appealed suspensions stemming from a Feb. 5 brawl in the Minnesota loss.

“It is a little limbo for us right now," Stealth coach Chris Hall said Wednesday. “We’ll probably know in the next 24 or 48 hours."

Grimes joined a fight between teammate Tyler Richards and Minnesota’s Sean Pollock. Beers left the bench to enter the fray.

Minnesota's Callum Crawford, the reigning NLL Overall Player of the Week, also came off the bench and faces possible suspension.

Crawford is coming off a career game against Colorado, scoring four goals with five assists and scooping five loose balls in a 15-5 decision.

Teammate Ryan Benesch also picked up the offense with three goals and six assists.

“It puts us right back in the thick of things," Benesch said of the 2-0 run after a 1-4 start. “Our offense is better. We’re moving the ball better and there’s no selfish player on this team."

Mammoth Woes

The Mammoth led the Swarm 3-1 after the first period, then went into an offensive shell, managing just five goals for the second consecutive game.

Colorado has lost three in a row and allowed 95 goals, most in the league. Colorado’s 69 goals are just one more than Buffalo and Philadelphia, who are tied for a league-low of 68.

The Mammoth has yet to win a home game and attendance is slipping.

Colorado, which led the league in attendance four times and ranked second three times since entering the league in 2003, has dipped to an average of 14,791, including 13,953 for its last home game, Feb. 5 against Orlando.

Last season, Colorado averaged 16,475, a drop from the 17,464 of 2008 when the economy was healthier.

Despite the slip in attendance, the Mammoth will celebrate their sustained box office success, welcoming their one millionth fan to the Pepsi Center on Saturday for their rematch against the Swarm.

The one millionth fan will be showered in prizes valued at $4,000, including a trip to Everett, Wash., for a game against the Stealth, two season tickets for the 2011 campaign, clothes, chocolates and a suite at Pepsi Center for a 2010 contest.

Rush Job

Edmonton showed heart in its 14-13 triumph over Toronto last Sunday, just nine days removed from falling 16-7 to the Rock.

“The offense was very much improved," said Rush assistant coach Jeremy Tallevi. “We played a lot harder, made a lot more passes, and got the results we were looking for."

Ryan Powell, the NLL Offensive Player of the Week, paced Edmonton with four goals and four assists, noting that the previous encounter with Toronto was embarrassing.

Former Mammoth star Gavin Prout scored what proved to be the game-winner for the Rush midway through the fourth quarter. Prout wound up with six points, including four assists, and pitched in on faceoffs, splitting duties with Ian Crashley to win eight of 15.

News & Notes

Calgary goaltender Matt King kept a grip on his starting position one game after being pulled for Mike Poulin, who went on to win NLL Overall Player of the Week honors. In a 13-9 triumph over Washington, King made 39 saves and held the Stealth to one first-half goal… Forty-two-year-old Gary Gait ripped off a four-goal game for Rochester in the Knighthawks’ 12-6 win at Philadelphia… Toronto’s Garrett Billings was tabbed NLL Rookie of the Week for the third time. In the loss to the Rush, he scored three goals (on 19 shots) and had five assists... Following a bye week, Buffalo faces a rematch with visiting Philadelphia. Assistant coach Duane Jacobs said the Bandits are leaning toward starting Angus Goodleaf in goal. “He’s a young man with a lot of confidence,’’ Jacobs said. Two weeks ago, trailing Philadelphia 5-0, Goodleaf came off the bench to replace Mike Thompson and stopped 37 shots, nabbing Defensive Player of the Week honors.  At the same time, Thompson was coming off an injury when he struggled against the Wings. “We don’t want to put a lot of stock in that start,’’ Jacobs said... The Bandits, who were boosted last time out by the return from injury of John Tavares, have plenty of motivation, aside from their dire berth in the standings. Buffalo head coach Darris Kilgour is one win away from 93 victories, which would tie the late Les Bartley for most regular season wins in NLL history.

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