January 26, 2016
Colorado goalie Dillon Ward may have grasped the No. 1 goalie role for good Saturday with a 50-save gem in a 14-5 win at Vancouver. (Garrett James/Vancouver Stealth)
Colorado goalie Dillon Ward may have grasped the No. 1 goalie role for good Saturday with a 50-save gem in a 14-5 win at Vancouver. (Garrett James/Vancouver Stealth)

Perfect Mammoth Hope for First NLL Title Since 2006

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

It was May 13, 2006, in what was then called HSBC Arena, that the visiting Colorado Mammoth defeated the Buffalo Bandits 16-9 to win the National Lacrosse League championship.

Pat Coyle, Josh Sims, Jamie Hanford, Brian Langtry, Nick Carlson, Gavin Prout, Jay Jalbert, John Gallant, Ben Prepchuk, Chris Gill, Tom Ethington, Chris Levis, Andrew Burkholder, Gee Nash, Dan Carey, Rich Catton, Dave Stilley and Dan Stroup played that night and in their dressing room afterward they gathered in an intimate circle with coach Gary Gait for one last vocal hurrah.

There has been no such celebration since, but maybe this is the year. At least one would have to think so after watching Colorado defeat the Vancouver Stealth 14-5 in the Langley Events Centre last Saturday.

Josh Sullivan, Greg Downing, Ilija Gajic, Adam Jones, Chris Wardle, Robert Hope, Cam Holding, Jordan Gilles, John Grant Jr., Alex Buque, Jeremy Noble, Dan Coates, Dillon Ward, Eli McLaughlin, Mike Burke, Creighton Reid, Joey Cupido and Callum Crawford, along with co-coaches Coyle, Gill and Stroup, were happy to improve to 4-0 and move a touch closer to ending the 10-year championship drought.

Steve Govett has been general manager since the Mammoth started out in Denver in 2002, and Grant is nearing the end of a fantastic career.

"The only other guy who wants to win it as badly as me is Junior," Govett said. "We spend a lot of time talking about that. We're only four games in, and nobody is sizing us for rings yet, but if we can get the type of goaltending we've been getting, maybe we can make it happen."

Ward stopped 50 Stealth shots in the best game of his NLL career and one right up there with his MVP heroics in helping Canada win the 2014 world field lacrosse championship. Buque had picked up the win in the season opener. The team has two goalies it can count on now,  but the humble Ward will be the man for as long as he plays like he did at the LEC.

Ward watches a ton of game film, analyzes opposition shooters and gets long-distance help from his mom, Trish in Orangeville, Ontario. They talk before all of his starts. This is what she told him before Saturday's game: Stay on your feet and stop going down. Ward listened.

"He's a real professional," Govett said. "He is very focused. He has a different approach than a lot of goalies. He's not high-strung. He's a quality kid."

Ward did not do it all on his own at the LEC, of course. Colorado's defense kept Stealth shooters to the outside most of the night.

"Pat Coyle put in a new system at the beginning of the season," Govett said. "They've all bought in. We've got a young and fast defense. It was evident Saturday that they've gone from learning to executing. I can't say enough about Pat Coyle and what he's done with our defense."

Signing free-agent defenseman Greg Downing provided a big boost.

"Man, he's been more than we could have expected," Govett said. "He's steady, solid, very honest as a defenseman, doesn't get beat. Ilija Gajic has been great back there, too."

Downing currently resides in Denver, upping to a club-record 13 the number of Mammoth regulars who live locally.

Defenseman Dan Coates was named the team's captain before the season.

"He's been fantastic," Govett said. "He's outstanding as a captain. We're thrilled for him, and we're thrilled with what he's doing."

Relinquishing the "C" has allowed Grant to concentrate entirely on the pre-game stretching and mental preparation he needs at age 41 to be as effective as he can be. He scored five goals, including four in a row, in the win Saturday.

"The retirement of John Tavares has affected him significantly," Govett said. "He's saying JT played till he was 47 because he was able to understand the off-ball game and being in the right place at the right time. Junior has accepted a role which doesn't require him to beat two or three guys. He's playing more of an off-ball role now. He's totally bought into moving the ball. He's a great passer, always has been, and understanding that it's not all on him has helped. We've got quick ball movement and young guys cutting into the middle, so, he doesn't have to do as much as he once did. It's a huge step in the right direction for him to be successful in a slightly different role."

Signing free-agent forward Callum Crawford and inserting him into the upper right spot of the attack is paying huge dividends. Crawford leads the NLL with 20 assists.

"If you look at where we've been in the past with Gavin Prout, and with Casey Powell to some extent, working as quarterbacks on the right side, that took pressure off our lefties," Govett said. "Prout was a great passer and playmaker. Crawford has stepped into that role. We haven't had that player since Gavin left. Noble is coming into his own as a leader on that side, too.''

These developments have provided the Mammoth balance up front, with Grant and Jones on the left and Crawford and Noble on the right.

"Two guys that go unsung in that are Wardle and McLaughlin, who both cut into the middle," Govett said. "That breaks down the other team's defense for guys like Grant and Jones, who are getting a half a second more to get their hands free to shoot."

The work of 2006 championship forward Dan Carey as director of player development has had an impact.

"He's come in and helped us get better," Govett said. "He's been a huge addition to our staff."

Govett, Coyle, Gill, Stroup, Carey, others behind the scenes, and longtime Colorado fans represent links to 2006. They all crave to bring an end to 10 long years without a title.

"As a player [with the Philadelphia Wings], I didn't go too many years without winning the championship," Govett said. "We won in 1993, 1994 and again in 1998."

And in 2006 as the GM of the Mammoth.

"Getting back there has been a challenge," he said.

The largest crowds in the NLL have been along for the ride. Colorado is on pace to lead the NLL in attendance for the third straight season, with an average of 14,607 fans turning out for the Mammoth's first two home games at Pepsi Center. Govett and his players are determined to reward them. If the goaltending holds up, it could happen.

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