When Charlotte head coach Mike Cerino joined the weekly Major League Lacrosse coaches call, he discussed the state of concern among the 1-4 Hounds, particularly regarding their chances for making a return trip to the postseason. Focusing on the playoffs was “too big of a bite to chew,” he said, and he’s right; when the calendar says “June” and you have only one win under your belt, you can’t get all Big Picture with it – you need to focus on immediate tasks, to (and thank you for not literally saying this, coach) take it one game at a time. The message was clear: if you’re 1-4, you can’t afford to worry about the playoffs. Well, anything is possible, but at 1-5, chances are you won’t have to.
If Charlotte is going to keep their postseason window open, they just might have to end The Streak. It’s obviously a daunting task, but the Hounds are bolstered by a bravado afforded to no other team in the league (“We ended last year’s streak, what’s one more?”), along with the fact that, as brief as it was, they held a fourth-quarter lead against the Outlaws last week.
Can they pull off the upset? Well, let’s start with who exactly “they” is going be. Justin Ward likely secured a starting spot with his performance last weekend, but with Matt Danowski running at midfield, all other attack spots seem to be up in the air. Do Joe Cummings and Tom DeNapoli return to their spots, or will Ryan Young get back in the lineup and DeNapoli move back to midfield?
The faceoff position is marked with a bit of uncertainty as well. First, Charlotte activated Geoff Snider, who won 17 of 25 draws against the Outlaws in the playoffs last summer. Snider is day to day with a knee injury he suffered during the NLL season, but if he’s available this weekend, they’ll be more than happy to have him. For Denver, their big change is that they won’t have Stephen Robarge coming out of the bullpen if things get out of hand (Anthony Kelly was 4-16 in that playoff game, Robarge 6-14.) again. With Robarge now in Chesapeake, the Outlaws could rely on Brent Hiken, a rookie out of Stevenson who won 72% of draws his senior year, to step up if Kelly calls for backup.
In exchange for sending Robarge to the Bayhawks, the Outlaws (aka Team Canada’s practice squad), received Team Canada midfielder Cameron Holding, a transition player for the Mammoth who Chesapeake selected second overall in the 2014 supplemental draft. Speaking of NLL guys making MLL debuts, Calgary Roughnecks star (and would you look at that: Team Canada member) Curtis Dickson is expected to join the Outlaws as well. Much like Zack Greer last season (and Mark Matthews in the season before that), Denver head coach B.J. O’Hara expects to not only play Dickson at attack, but to have him sub out of the box for midfield runs as well, citing that NLL players handle that role well due to their quick subbing experience.
As evidenced by the recent roster additions, scouting these teams is going to be tricky, and far more difficult than you’d expect considering the fact they played against each other last weekend. O’Hara mentioned during the coaches call that he has to prepare his team for the likes of Young and Mike Chanenchuk, although neither played last weekend (and there’s really nothing saying they’ll play this weekend, either). You see, coaches tend to guard their lineups like nuclear activation codes, which is somewhat frustrating for opposing coaches, but extremely frustrating for people who write Major League Lacrosse previews. It’s tough to beat a team twice in a row, even tougher when you don’t know who you’ll be going against.
If there’s one team that’s up for such a unique challenge, it’s the Denver Outlaws, who continue to roll along with surgical precision and cold-blooded efficiency. Four of their players have reached double digit point totals, whereas none of the Hounds have crossed that mark. Denver has two offensive players shooting under 25%; Charlotte has one shooting over 25%. Denver is converting on 50% of their extra-man opportunities, (disclosure: they’ve had the fewest man-up advantages as well) the best percentage in the league.
At 42.8%, Charlotte has the worst penalty kill. You see where I’m going with this, but it’s important to remember (especially for a rookie-laden team like Charlotte) that these are cumulative stats that reflect the entire season thus far; you can’t blame guys like Mike Chanenchuk and Justin Ward for things that took place while they were still in school. Of course, that means we can’t give this roster all the credit for Charlotte’s clutch performances through the years (Danowski and Young’s game-winners against Chesapeake in 2012 and 2013, respectively, immediately come to mind), but they do seem to have a knack for that sort of thing, and the stars of those performances are still on the roster.
Aside from the intangibles, the Hounds should also be pleased to know that the Outlaws have been keeping their games close (they’re winning by an average of three goals this season, as opposed to seven at this time in 2013, and were taken to overtime back in week three), and have been guilty of taking their feet off the gas in the second half. It’s not the “they’ve been outscored 34-29” part that’s cause for concern among Outlaws fans, it’s that they’ve only outscored their opponent once during the second half this season (it’s all admittedly a bit nit-picky, but when you’re looking for cracks in a team on this kind of run, you get them where you can).
The window’s closing fast, and if Charlotte’s going to turn things around, they’ll have to do it right away. Do the Hounds have another upset in them, or did that all the magic run out last year? Catch the game at 7:30 EST Saturday night on CBS Sports (check the main page for the rest of this weekend’s game times and channels), and we’ll be back next week with more Major League Lacrosse coverage.