May 7, 2011

NLL Division Finals Preview: Stealth Mode Actually Better on the Road

by Neil Stevens |

Sharp-shooting Rhys Duch and the defending NLL champion Washington Stealth visit Calgary on Saturday for the West Division final.

The Champion's Cup belongs to the Washington Stealth until somebody rips it away from them.

The Calgary Roughnecks will try Saturday, and Stealth players don't mind at all that the NLL West final is in Calgary because they won the teams' lone regular-season encounter in the Alberta city and have been road warriors all year in winning six of nine games in enemy territory including a first-round playoff win in Minnesota.

''There are fewer distractions,'' Stealth forward Luke Wiles explains when asked to explain the success on the road. ''When we get at home, we get in a mindset that we're comfortable and everything is at ease for us.

''On the road, we go in with the intent of getting a win and getting out. We get into a good mindset on the road and it's worked out well for us. It's weird because last year we were a home team, but the road has worked out a lot better for us this year.''

Wiles has thrived against the Roughnecks this year. He scored five goals the last time the teams met and four the game before that.

''We're real confident,'' he replied when asked to describe the mood of the team. ''I always say that if you have confidence in your goaltender, then everything else becomes easier.

''Our defense played its best game of the season last weekend and our offense has never lacked confidence. We all come together very well out the front door. We've got spots we're in and we're all super comfortable with each other. Through our whole team, we're a confident bunch. I know Calgary is young and strong and eager so it's going to be a good matchup. It's going to be a tough one but we're defending champions and, until somebody knocks us off, we've got the trophy.''

Washington is the highest-scoring team in pro lacrosse and Calgary is right behind.

''Our offense is the most potent because of how well we get along,'' Wiles said. ''A lot of teams have egos. Our team doesn't really. When we have to get wins, we all kind of know where we fit and what job we're supposed to do and we move into our spots and play those spots well.''

The return last weekend of attacker Jeff Zywicki returned a vital component to the offense.

''He's a big piece to our puzzle,'' Wiles said. ''He plays the crease well and he's an intelligent player.''

Having the utmost confidence in goaltender Tyler Richards allows the offense freedom to gamble.

''I think we have the best goalie in the league,'' Wiles said.

Calgary's Mike Poulin is no slouch either, and the Roughnecks' 7-2 home record, including the first-round win over Colorado, gives them reason to believe they can regain the title they last won in 2009. They know their defense will have to be at its best.

''The Washington-Calgary rivalry can be summed up in one word: respect,'' said Calgary defenseman Mike Carnegie. ''The Stealth has probably the most potent offence in the league, great goaltending, and defence to back it up. Knowing how good they can be forces us to bring our 'A' game. Nothing short of a 60-minute effort by all of the Roughnecks is needed.''

Home-floor advantage might turn out to be much bigger factor in the NLL East final.

The Buffalo Bandits lost their last three regular-season home games to slip to 4-4 in HSBC Arena, but got back on track with a playoff win over Boston, while the Toronto Rock is a poor 3-5 on the road this year and is without a win in enemy territory since Feb. 26.

The goaltending duel between Buffalo's Mike Thompson and Toronto's Bob Watson should make for a dandy show in a game expected to be lower scoring than the other divisional final.

''It has developed into the best rivalry in lacrosse,'' said Rock forward Blaine Manning. ''We have a history and we respect each other but it's no secret that we don't like each other. Every time we play it's a tough, physical, in-your-face type of game.''

Here's a breakdown of the division finals:

West Division

(3) Washington at (1) Calgary

When: Saturday, 9:30 p.m. EDT

2010 playoffs: Washington advanced to the championship game and rallied from a 10-8 deficit to beat Toronto 15-11; Calgary was eliminated 11-7 by Edmonton in the first round.

2011 regular season: Calgary finished first overall at 11-5; Washington was 8-8 for third place in the West; Calgary won two of the three meetings.

2011 first round: Richards was outstanding in the second half and Washington got three goals from each of Rhys Duch and Lewis Ratcliff to win 14-8 in Minnesota; Dane Dobbie and Scott Ranger scored three goals each and Poulin was the first star as Calgary beat visiting Colorado 10-6.

Notes: The teams combined for 87 goals in three regular-season meetings . . . The Snider brothers go at it on faceoffs. Geoff led the league by winning 235 draws for the 'Necks and Bobby was runnerup with 226 wins for the Stealth . . . Washington's power play was 19-for-39 on the road _ a success rate of nearly 50 per cent . . . When scoring first, Calgary is 5-1 and Washington is 7-5 . . . Eleven players remain on each team from the last playoff meeting. That was the 2009 West final in Calgary when the Stealth, then based in San Jose, California, was bombed 17-5 . . . Washington head coach Chris Hall was Calgary head coach when it won the 2004 title, and Ratcliff amassed 17 points in the 'Necks three playoff games that year.

East Division

(2) Toronto at (1) Buffalo

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EDT

2010 playoffs: Toronto rallied at home from 6-0 deficit to defeat Buffalo 13-11 in first round on way to Champion's Cup final.

2011 regular season: both teams finished 10-6; Buffalo won two of three meetings.

2011 first round: Buffalo got four goals from Roger Vyse and three from John Tavares and Thompson was outstanding in an 11-10 squeaker over Boston; Colin Doyle and Garrett Billings scored three goals each and Watson blanked Rochester in the second quarter in a 10-8 Rock victory.

Notes: Buffalo last won the championship in 2008 and Toronto last won in 2005 . . . Buffalo was the most penalized team during regular season, averaging 24 minutes a game, and can't afford to give Toronto unlimited power plays . . . Brandon Francis was 9-for-9 on faceoffs for the Bandits when they won in Toronto on April 8 but he's suspended and will miss this one . . . When scoring first, Toronto is 9-2 and Buffalo is 4-1 . . . Will Rock coach Troy Cordingley use rookie Aaron Pascas, who says he'll be ready despite hurting his left ankle last weekend, or veteran Pat Maddalena who sat out against Rochester?

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