May 15, 2011

Stealth's Comeback, Repeat Bid Fall Short

by Neil Stevens |

Washington Stealth defenseman Eric Martin tries to sneak a shot around Toronto Rock forward Blaine Manning in transition. The shot missed its mark.

© Graig Abel Photography

TORONTO -- The Washington Stealth couldn't pull off another comeback miracle.

The Stealth overcame a 10-8 fourth-quarter deficit to win the 2010 NLL championship 15-11 at home, but this time they couldn't quite overcome the 7-4 deficit they faced at the start of the closing quarter, as the Rock held them off to snatch the Champion's Cup with an 8-7 victory Sunday.

The Stealth's slow start, and Bob Watson's sensational goaltending, doomed them.

''We didn't really do a good job of getting some loose balls I thought we had an opportunity to get and... we turned the ball over way too much,'' coach Chris Hall said of his team's dismal first half. ''At one point we turned the ball over four times in a row without getting a shot on goal.

''It just killed us. The turnovers just killed us, and Bob Watson made a couple of miraculous saves early. We had three, four, five, maybe six naked chances on him, and he made the saves. It was his night, and he was full measure for it. We did a pretty good job in the second half, but we were still one short.''

Lewis Ratcliff led the Stealth with three goals.

''In the first half, he was stopping everything,'' Ratcliff said of Watson's heroics in helping the Rock go into the dressing room up 7-2 at halftime. ''The two we snuck by him were kind of lucky ones.

''The second half we kind of got on a roll and got a little confidence. When you start putting a couple behind him, you can score in bunches.

''But we took too long to get going. If we'd stepped up a little more in the first half, it could have been a different outcome.''

Toronto had a 57-53 edge in shots on goal. Tyler Richards was every bit as good as Watson in allowing only one Toronto goal in the second half. The 24-year-old Vancouver resident grew up watching Watson on televised NLL games.

''We're about the same size,'' Richards said. ''I learned quite a few things from him -- how to hold the stick, positioning, that kind of stuff.

''To do what he did today at the age of 41, I think I'd be lucky to have a career as great as he did.''

Watson had announced the NLL final would be his last career start.

Richards said he was determined to play well enough in the second half to allow his teammates to battle back.

''I said to myself that if I could keep them to one, it would give us a legit chance to win,'' he said. ''It may sound funny, but that's the honest truth.

''I said, 'You have to stand tall and be big in there.' We were down five goals at the half. My goal was one, and I kept it to one, but we just came up short.''

Washington was trying to become the first team since Toronto in 2003 to win two straight NLL championships.

''It was an up-and-down season,'' said Hall, who guided the Stealth to an 8-8 regular season despite missing key players due to injuries. ''We had some critical guys out for a while, but I thought we were doing alright.

''We just wanted to try and be healthy come playoff time, and we got healthy. I knew when we were healthy that we had another great shot at it again. I don't think it mattered where we played, although we had to play on the road. We do that pretty well. I was pretty confident we were going to be a force again, and we were.''

Playoff wins on the road at Minnesota and Calgary proved Hall correct.

In the final, Washington hoped Toronto players would tire themselves out with their first-half efforts.

''It's a game of momentum,'' said transition specialist Paul Rabil. ''They came out with a strategy to really push the pressure on us, and you can only do that for so long in that type of atmosphere and heat on the floor.

''When they stopped being able to pressure us, we settled in and were able to play our game. They were fortunate enough to play well enough during their pressure period to build a substantial lead.''

A lead Watson wouldn't relinquish.

''We got beat by a phenomenal goalkeeper,'' Rabil said. ''He made tons of great stops off some of what we think is some of the best talent in the league.

''I guess there's no better way for him to go out.''

Stealth defenseman Chris McElroy agreed that the early hole and Watson's goaltending told the story.

''We battled and came back, but Bob Watson stood on his head and played a great game,'' McElroy said. ''All the credit goes to him. Congratulations to them on a big championship win.''

Captain Jason Bloom echoed those comments.

''We didn't come out for the first half,'' Bloom said. ''For what we did in the second half, if we'd come out that way it might have been a different story. But they deserved to win.''

Getting within 7-6 had the Stealth visualizing another comeback win.

''We certainly had all the momentum,'' Bloom said. ''We had the ball in the right guy's stick and Bobby showed why he's one of the best of all time. We had the opportunities. We just didn't finish.''

On trying to win the NLL title two years in a row, he added, ''Yeah, there's certainly a bull's-eye on your back. We learned a lot of lessons during the regular season, and we certainly peaked at the right time. The last two [playoff games] we played outstanding lacrosse, and I think we played an outstanding second half of this game. We didn't have it for the first half, for whatever reason.

''It's certainly tough. I don't think any team has won three games on the road to win the championship. The fans were in here and the place was rockin' and it came down to the last couple of minutes.''

Hall called timeout with 30 seconds left to pull Richards for an extra attacker and set up a last shot for a tie that would force overtime. Luke Wiles missed a pass, Toronto defenseman Cam Woods gathered in the loose ball, and he killed the clock.

''That's something that was disappointing, because those are the things you practice all year long,'' Hall said. ''You practice them for that very moment.

''We have two or three things that we go to, and we practice them a million times and make sure everybody is on board. It was a matter of deciding which one. We made a collective decision. They pressured us. We know that's going to happen. We just didn't execute. So it was disappointing not to execute the 6-on-5. We didn't get the job done and get another shot on goal.''

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