Major League Lacrosse Playoffs 2014
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Digesting Major League Lacrosse: PLAYOFFS

After 14 weeks of unprecedented insanity, we’ve finally reached the MLL playoffs, with the Machine taking on the Rattlers in the first game, and the Lizards facing the Outlaws in the second.

With teams that match up so well on paper, how can you predict a champion?

I looked at the past seven champs for any sort of pattern for success, and it turns out the highest-scoring offense has won three times (good news for the Machine), while the league’s best defense has only done so once (bad news for the Rattlers).

The three seed never won (sorry Lizards), and the champion never had a losing record on the road (sucks for you, everybody but the Rattlers).

What about regular season success?

The 2012 champion Bayhawks were 10-4 while the 2010 champion Bayhawks were merely a .500 squad. You can look at past numbers all you want, they don’t matter at all – the truth is, there’s no one road that leads you to a championship.

It doesn’t matter how got you here, just win two games and the Steinfeld Cup is yours (well, not really yours, it belongs to the league, but you’ll get your picture with it. How about “MLL immortality?” A bit overdramatic? Who cares, it’s all yours).

Machine @ Rattlers

As you most likely heard, the top two seeds were awarded home playoff games this season, as opposed to the predetermined locations of years past.

Unfortunately for the Rattlers, their game must take place at nearby Wegman Stadium, because their home Sahlen’s Stadium was reserved for, you guessed it, a “Legends of Hip Hop” concert.

Citizens of Rochester, I want you to listen to me, and listen very carefully: The concert starts at noon, and the venues are less than ten minutes apart. You have to attend both events. How many times in your life do you think you’re going to see Slick Rick, Doug E. Fresh, Jordan Wolf and Kyle Harrison on the same day? If you guessed any number higher than one, I’m afraid you’re grossly overestimating your luck.

It’s the ultimate Saturday: legends of hip hop, grab a garbage plate, hit up Machine-Rattlers. Do it. You have to. Thank me later.

Now, on to the game itself.

The 10-4 Rattlers enter the postseason as the top seed, and for good reason, having won eight of their last ten games. Now, all of this is great for Rochester fans, except for one important detail: those remaining two losses have come at the hands of the Ohio Machine. The Rattlers haven’t lost to a non-Machine team since May 17; of course they had to draw them in the semifinals.

Throughout the season, Ohio has played mongoose to Rochester’s, well, Rattler, I guess – ignoring a traditionally intimidating defense, striking with relentless aggression and ultimately wearing an otherwise frightening opponent into submission.

Allow me to explain: Rochester’s defense gave up 11.5 goals per game (best in the league), yet allowed 18 and 17 goals, respectively, in their two regular season matchups against the Machine. Furthermore, their second-ranked offense managed only two fourth-quarter goals in both of their matchups. See? Mongoose. When you add that to the fact that Ohio is a) currently in the midst of a five-game winning streak, and b) the only team to beat the Rattlers in Rochester this season, the odds certainly don’t appear to in be Rattlers’ favor, but there could be a catch: It’s not easy to beat a team twice in a season, what about beating the top-ranked team three times in a season, and twice in only three weeks? One person could cite Ohio’s season history as evidence that they’ll probably lose, another as to why they’re going to win, and both would be fairly convincing.

While both matchups shared a similar outcome, several players ended up taking on different roles, one notable exception being Ohio’s Marcus Holman.

When the teams first met, Holman tossed in what was then a career-high five goals. His new career high? Six goals, set during their second meeting, where he not only tallied eight points on the evening, but once again brought out his “Ballin”/”Buckets”/”I just drained a three in all y’alls faces” post-goal celebration dating back to his Tar Heel days (as we all know, the only thing better than a signature celebration is an opponent willing to use it against you, and Jordan Macintosh did so after scoring a goal of his own just a few minutes later).

Their first meeting marked the MLL debut of Jordan Wolf, and he quickly made himself at home to the tune of four goals and an assist. Fellow rookie (and then-midfielder) Mark Cockerton was held scoreless, but that game took place two weeks prior to Cockerton becoming a full-time attackman and morphing into the monster we see today. In their second meeting, he finished with four goals, while Wolf, on the other hand, fared a bit differently. After blowing by Dana Wilber for a goal when the game was eight seconds old, Wolf was held without a goal for the remainder of the game, with Ohio short sticks Dan Groot and Dominique Alexander taking on the task of coverage.

Be it Wolf, Justin Ward or Drew Westervelt, Alexander has been dropping down to cover attackmen for weeks. And he’s not there to shut off, he’s there’s to shut down, forcing a Wolf turnover early in their latest matchup. After Steele Stanwick (initially covered by Mike Manley) handed out six assists in their first meeting, Rochester head coach Tim Soudan and the Rattlers went with the short stick strategy as well, which Stanwick exploited for four goals and two assists. Now that Stanwick’s on a scoring tear, and more than comfortable calling his own number, does Soudan give Manley the assignment once again? Conversely, even with past success, is Ohio head coach Bear Davis comfortable leaving a short stick on Wolf for the entirety of the game? You’d have to think Wolf and the Rattlers are too good not to adapt.

Say the Rattlers do adapt, and find a way to counter the Machine’s defensive adjustments: will Ohio’s Brian Phipps be solid enough in goal to make a difference? Phipps recorded two saves on nine shots in the first three quarters last week against Florida, yet followed it up with six saves on nine more shots in the fourth. Phipps’ run, especially as of late, has been nothing short of Tebow-esque: he’s got the second-highest GAA (13.29) and the lowest save percentage (48% – he’s the only goalie under 50%) in the league, yet he recorded overtime saves in week 11 and 12 victories. While coming up big when it counts is great, Ohio fans would gladly sacrifice the excitement for consistency – you never know when the magic is going to run out.

But say the magic doesn’t run out any time soon – how will the Rattlers get past the Machine? There’s one glaring consistency in both of Rochester’s losses, and fortunately for the Rattlers, fixing it is entirely in their hands. Not that Ohio has needed anyone’s help, but the Rattlers have been their own worst enemy in these losses, and composure is going to be essential to victory.

In their first meeting, with the teams tied at 10, John Galloway flipped out on a ref in very un-Galloway fashion, and the Machine immediately capitalized on his distraction. Maybe the tenth goal is the boiling point, because in the second meeting, down only 10-9, Mike Manley picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after mouthing off as well, and once again, the Machine cashed in.

At a 44.74% conversion rate, Ohio has the most efficient extra-man offense in the league. You really want to potentially give them more chances? It’s the playoffs, fellas: don’t let your temper be the reason you hang up your gear a week earlier than planned.

Lizards @ Outlaws

The second matchup of the afternoon features two teams with incredibly unpleasant postseason experiences as of late. While the Lizards lack the Outlaws’ consistency when it comes to playoff devastation, they’re quite familiar with being kicked square in their collective chests as well.

Let’s go back to 2012, with rookie head coach Joe Spallina and his upset-minded Lizards looking to take down the top-ranked Outlaws. The Lizards jump all over a Denver squad reeling from the freakish loss of Brendan Mundorf (injured during the team walkthrough), and enjoy a 12-3 lead with only 25 minutes left. Well, long story short, the Lizards never score again, the Outlaws score 10 unanswered goals to win 13-12 and the Lizards are sent home trying to piece together exactly what just happened.

With that being their last playoff memory, the Lizards may be coping with some postseason trauma of their own, but when it comes to playoff demons, Denver is the Amityville of Major League Lacrosse: Eight years of existence, eight postseason appearances and zero rings, which, aside from his connection to the Denver area (and that fact that he’s really, really good at lacrosse), is exactly why the Outlaws felt the need to trade for John Grant Jr. in the offseason.

Junior is coming off of back to back championships with the Bayhawks, but he won his first one back in 2008 with the Rochester Rattlers, led by current Denver head coach BJ O’Hara. Junior and his four rings don’t care much for your silly curses, mental blocks, or any other reasons one could use to explain the Outlaws’ history of postseason heartbreak. In Junior’s eyes, a little veteran leadership, some influence from a guy who’s done it before, could rub off on the rest of the group and get them to the next level.

Another positive difference between this and previous Outlaws squads is that this one gets to finally host a playoff game, and if the new home-field format truly yields an advantage, there will be no greater beneficiaries than Colorado natives Eric Law (nine goals in his postseason debut) and Dillon Roy. Boasting an incredible 44-13 record at home, the Outlaws clearly believe Denver to be their ally, but most of them merely adopted it; Law and Roy were born in Denver, molded by Denver, and thanks to an already-booked Invesco field, this game will be played at Peter Barton Field, their old college stadium at the University of Denver.

Unfortunately, there’s a significant tradeoff in exchange for the Pioneers’ homecoming game: Peter Barton only seats 2,000 spectators, whereas over 7,000 showed up to Invesco for the Outlaws’ last home game. Will the Outlaws fully reap the benefits of a home game when they’re playing at a different location in front of a fraction of their usual fans?

And now, it’s time for the biggest question looming over this game: Is Anthony Kelly going to be back, and if so, how effective will he be?

As you probably know, Kelly suffered a three-inch tear in his Achilles tendon (that’s considerably different from the “torn Achilles” you traditionally hear about) in week 12 against Ohio, and both Kelly and head coach BJ O’Hara were optimistic that he’d be able to return in time for the playoffs. Based on his frame, one would assume Kelly’s tendons are likely composed of bridge cables and adamantium, but still, is he actually good to go after only two weeks rest?

Time will tell, and although he was removed from the injured reserve on Tuesday, I’m guessing O’Hara will keep us all in the dark as long as humanly possible, even if it means Kelly Verbal Kint-ing his way down the tunnel right before the opening whistle.

Frankly, even if Kelly isn’t at 100%, his services would be greatly appreciated. Last week, the Outlaws were 9-27 at the faceoff X, which seems bad enough as is, but consider that backup draw man Brent Hiken won five of the game’s first nine faceoffs, yet ended the evening 9-22; it looks like Gurenlian and the Lizards may have figured him out.

The possession advantage certainly helped in New York’s 12-11 win against the Outlaws last weekend, but you really shouldn’t count on 12 goals being enough to put them away, especially since Drew Adams played out of his mind, his season-high 22 saves only somewhat doing his actual performance justice. In their earlier matchup, Adams stopped only seven shots, giving up thirteen goals before watching the fourth quarter from the bench, so say you get a Drew Adams that’s somewhere in the middle – will the Lizards’ offense (plagued by unforced turnovers in recent weeks) provide enough firepower to stave off the Outlaws?

No surprise, the offense will be likely be led by Rob Pannell, who has been a serious problem for traditional opponent Lee Zink, as well as Dillon Roy, who spent a significant portion of last week’s game covering him. When Pannell had a step, he beat Zink to the other side of the goal. When he was at X, and Roy or Zink were hung topside, he relaxed and fed his cutters. Pannell finished with two goals and four assists last weekend (it should be noted, however, that those two goals came on a season-high 14 shots – neither team wants Rob Pannell taking 14 shots), and if Denver finds a way to adjust accordingly, Ned Crotty appears ready to shoulder some additional responsibility.

Having found his way back into a more significant attack role, Crotty contributed two goals and assisted on Kyle Hartzell’s overtime game-winner last weekend.

With Crotty moving to attack, now would be an ideal time for Max Seibald to make a return to the scoring column. Between missing both time (due to injury and the World Games) and the goal, Seibald has contributed one point in New York’s past six games, and is currently shooting 0 for his last 15. The Lizards average 12.6 goals per game, give up 11.9, and have been remarkably true to their average as of late, playing to a 12-11 final in each of their past three games. While they’ve won six of their past seven games, that’s an incredibly thin margin on which to balance; a productive Seibald could certainly provide a bit more breathing room.

Can the Rattlers get the one win that has eluded them this season? Have the Lizards forgotten about the great meltdown of 2012? Can the Machine keep their streak alive for just two more games? Is the ninth time the charm for the Denver Outlaws? No matter how these teams got here, no matter what challenges lie ahead, this weekend, it’s all very simple: winners go to Georgia, losers go home.