May 12, 2011

Home Floor Advantage Not Always a Good Thing in NLL Finals

by Neil Stevens |

The Stealth hoisted the Champion's Cup last year in Washington, just the 13th time in the last 24 NLL finals that the home team has won.

© Richard Olson

The Toronto Rock has enjoyed an 8-1 dominance in the nine games it has played on its home floor so far this year. But don't assume that means it has the 2011 National Lacrosse League championship in the bag, because the Washington Stealth will show up in the Air Canada Centre on Sunday afternoon with an impressive 7-3 road record.

"I don't think there is anything that intimidates this team," said Stealth attacker Rhys Duch. ''You aren't going to be a winning team if you are intimidated. Everyone wants to play at home, but we are 7-3 on the road this year. Does that intimidate them?"

Hardly likely, but Rock players acknowledged they're in for a challenge.

"They will be tough to beat," said Toronto captain Colin Doyle.

So the home-floor factor means little, and NLL history backs that up: in the last 24 title games, the team playing on its home floor has just a 13-11 edge. (Although, one could argue it's a 12-12 sawoff, because one of those finals, in 2007, saw a Rochester team that had home-floor advantage win the championship after playing it in Arizona because its arena was unavailable.)

It will be a battle between two outstanding teams that met a year ago in Everett, Wash., where the Stealth rallied to take the Champion's Cup, 15-11. This will be the first time the same two teams have played in consecutive finals since 2000, when Toronto beat Rochester in Toronto for the second year in a row.

One facet of playoff results this year that stands out: Toronto had to hang on to survive late opposition rallies in its two games, while Washington pulled away in the second half in each of its wins.

Here's a glance at the matchup.

When: 2 p.m. Eastern
Regular season records: Toronto 10-6, 2nd in the East; Washington 8-8, 3rd in the West.

Regular-season meeting: Toronto defeated Washington 13-12 in overtime on April 1 at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto led 4-1 after one quarter, Toronto had 66-47 advantage in shots on goal, Stephan Leblanc and Kasey Beirnes scored three goals each for Rock and Lewis Ratcliff led Stealth with three.

Washington's playoff wins:

* April 30 -- Washington 14 at Minnesota 8 -- Stealth overcame 2-0 and 6-3 deficits, goalie Tyler Richards made 47 saves, Duch and Ratcliff scored three goals each.
* May 7 -- Washington 10 at Calgary 8 -- Stealth overcame 3-0 deficit, Richards made 44 saves, Ratcliff and Jeff Zywicki scored three goals each.

Zywicki's take: "Our whole team is healthy now, so we're at full strength and we're playing with confidence and selflessness at both ends of the floor. T-Rich has been phenomenal the last two games after arguably shaky starts early on. Our 'D' has come together and played their best of the season the last two games, which takes a lot of pressure off our 'O' to score 15 plus goals a game. With the rest of our team playing so well, our 'O' is able to get into a good rhythm and feed off each other."

Toronto's playoff wins:

* May 1 -- Rochester 8 at Toronto 10 -- Watson only had to make 33 saves and he held Rochester without goal for more than 20 minutes, Doyle and Garrett Billings scored three goals each.
* May 7 -- Toronto 12 at Buffalo 11 -- After Rock jumped to a 6-0 lead, Watson made 35 saves, Billings and Leblanc scored three goals each.

Blaine Manning's take: "We've endured all season long. Towards the end of the regular season when we lost four out of our last five, we were left for dead, but we continued to stick together and work through it as a team. We're a good all-around team with great goaltending, good defense and good offense. We're a solid, unselfish team."

Sentimental factor: 41-year-old Rock goalie Bob Watson hopes for a sixth NLL title in the last game of his illustrious career.

"I know Bob will want us to approach this like any other game because he is the ultimate team player, but if you ask any of the guys in the locker room, we would all say that there is a big part of us all that will be playing for him on Sunday," said Rock defenseman Pat Merrill.

A look back at the 2010 final: Toronto 11 at Washington 15 in Everett, Wash. Toronto led 10-8 entering fourth quarter. Toronto outshot the Stealth 61-47, with Richards making 50 saves and Watson 32. Ratcliff scored five goals and was named MVP. Beirnes led Toronto with four goals.

Canada calls: Duch, Zywicki, Richards and Jeff Moleski of the Stealth will remain in Toronto until Tuesday when they will become teammates with Rock players Doyle, Leblanc, Merrill and Sandy Chapman on the evening flight to the Czech Republic, where Canada's quest for a third straight world indoor title begins with a May 22 game against Slovakia.

"I'm looking forward to playing with people I'm not looking forward to playing against this weekend," Duch said.

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