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MLL Playoffs Preview: Boston vs Chesepeake & Hamilton vs Denver

Next weekend the MLL playoffs will go down in Annapolis, MD at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium.  Typically, the August weather down there is pretty muggy and oftentimes, it can also be quite hot.  The last weekend in August can be a tricky portion of the year on the shores of Maryland.  But no matter what; whether it’s rain or shine, humid or dry, or even hot or cold, we’re definitely in for some great lacrosse.  The #1 seeded Boston Cannons take on the Chesepeake Bayhawks (on CHE home turf!), and the Denver Outlaws will face the Hamilton Nationals.  It should be an extremely exciting weekend!

Boston has had a banner regular season.  They won.  A LOT.  Guys have settled into roles nicely, and they have had a diverse scoring punch.  Some of the guys on their team definitely play a role, and aren’t viewed as complete players necessarily, but they do have a couple guys who can do a lot, and they’re lead by Paul Rabil.  The Cannons fortunes run through Rabil, and everyone knows it.  He draws a lot of attention and a lot of goals and assists for others come as a result of his initiating the play only moments earlier.  Teams game plan for him, and very well they should.

Chesepeake believes in less of a help defense though, so at first glance, this looks like it will play right into Boston’s hands.  Until you see the one man they are going to stick on Rabil for the majority of the game: Kyle Hartzell.  Hartzell isn’t a 6’4″ beast like Rabil, but don’t be fooled.  He is an excellent athlete, extremely well conditioned, and fully accustomed to guarding great players, and modifying his game to the situation.  He has proven he can handle PR99 in the past, and has also had success against players like John Grant Jr, and a host of other greats.  If Rabil can get matchups on the Chesepeake short sticks, I think he’ll have much more success, but he, and the Cannons have to be wary of how he plays against Hartzell.  If he tries to do too much, the Cannons will become predictable, suffocate, and lose.  If he doesn’t initiate enough, he will get shut down, and the Cannons will lose.  Never before has ONE match-up been so important to the outcome of a game.

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Hartzell (Left) is the Decider.

The Bayhawks are going to score some goals.  But I don’t think they will put up more than 12-14 on Burke and the Cannons’ defense.  If Rabil gets going, and it opens up for others early, the Cannons can definitely win this one by a bunch of goals, but the Bayhawks will be looking for that, and their gameplan will focus on making guys like Quinzani, Poskay, Ross and Buchanan act as dodgers.  Of that group, Buchanan is by far and away the most dangerous, and has the potential to have a big game.

The biggest question mark for either team is Chesepeake’s goalie situation.  Do you play the guy you’ve played a lot this season, who got you to the playoffs?  Or do you go with the guy who is coming back off of injury who won it all for you last year?  I would probably go with the latter to be honest, especially as the Bayhawks just clicked so well last year, but I’m not in the locker room and can’t truly speak to the team dynamic.  So it’s a question mark, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.  In fact, a standout performance in goal that frustrates Rabil early could be just what the Bayhawks need.

In the end, I like Boston to actually win this game, but if anyone thinks it’s going to be a cakewalk, they will be in for a serious surprise.  Chesepeake did ok against Boston in the regular season, and lost both games they played, by 4 and 7 goals.  But the Bayhawks in the playoffs will be a different animal, and they will put up a much stiffer fight.  If Kyle Hartzell goes off on Rabil and the Bayhawks’ goalie shows up big, anything could happen.

On the other side of the Semifinal, you’ve got the Denver Outlaws and the Hamilton Nationals.  Hamilton is a wholly reformed team, extremely young, and that makes them unpredictable.  Little was expected of them, so a 3rd place finish must have provided a nice boost in the morale department.  On the other hand, this was supposed to be Denver’s year, and they need to make it happen soon with this group of stellar players they have.  It seems like they are two teams headed in different directions.

Denver is suffering a bit from injuries on the defensive end of the field, but they do have Jesse Schwartzman in goal, and that guy just loves playing at Navy’s Stadium.  Everyone knows that, so I’m not too worried about the Denver D showing.  But they will give up goals.  And I’m thinking it’s going to be a few more than they did for most of the season.  They held a lot of teams to around 10 goals or less, and they did that numerous times to Hamilton, but I think the loss of two starting defenders (Eric Martin being one of them) is going to change things just a little, and I could see Hamilton pumping in 12 or 13 goals.

On the other end of the field, it will really come down to a couple of guys for Denver, and if they can get things going, Denver could go off and score in the mid to high teens.  Brendan Mundorf, Drew Westervelt, Peet Poillon and a healthy Max Seibald will create problems for any opposing defense, and then if they can get guys like Langtry involved and scoring, they could run away with it.

This has to be Denver's year. Right? Doesn't it?

Photo courtesy Zimbio

Hamilton didn’t start off so hot, but once a third of the season had gone by, they really turned things around.  At the end, they didn’t look nearly as dangerous, but maybe that was just a pre-playoffs lag.  Like I said, they are incredibly unpredictable.  That’s what you get with a young, and rapidly transforming team!  But it’s not like these guys don’t already know each other.  When you look at the Nationals, you see a web of players that have played together before, and in the playoffs, that comfort level will prove integral to their success or failure on the field.

Joe Walters plays for the Knighthawks with Cody Jamieson.  And Jordan Hall.  Jammer, Jeremy Thompson, Stephen Keough, Solomon Bliss, and Casey Powell all went to Cuse.  A number of these guys have played on the Canadian box and field national teams.  The same is true of the Iroquois Nationals.  And those guys know each other from box lacrosse.  This isn’t just a team of random players.  This is a team built for a purpose, and done so quickly.  The question isn’t “are they good?”.  The question is “will they be good this year in the playoffs?”.

And the answer will come from their defense.  Their goaltending is good, but not great.  Next year, as Rodgers continues to improve and adjust, it will be excellent.  But for now, it’s just good.  So their poles really need to play above and beyond their usual level if Hamilton wants to see success.  Steven Waldeck, Kevin Ridgway, Soloman Bliss, Brodie Merrill and Kyle Rubisch make for a great group on paper.  They have some serious size and height with this group, some great sticks and good athletic ability.  But the question is, can they play together?  This usually just takes time, and it’s the one place I don’t think Hamilton has improved enough at.  They are much better than they were early on, but they lack depth and a diversity of defenders.  I don’t know that any of them will be able to muzzle Brendan Mundorf completely.  A healthy Max Seibald could run by most of them.  But maybe I’m wrong, and they’ll show up and play as a unit.  It is the MLL after all.

In the end, I’ll go with Denver to win.  It could be close, and as we’ve seen in year’s past, picking the top seeds doesn’t always pan out, but I think this year is different.  If the top teams can impose their will on their opponents as they’ve done all season, they’ll both win by 2-5 goals.  But if the underdogs do what they do most years, and really bring it, you can throw most of what I said out the window.

The lax gods be praised that the MLL is adding two teams next year, and adding two games as well, because then maybe we’ll have some idea as to who is actually good, and who will just show up when the games really matter.  I’m going with the favorites, but it’s hardly a done deal.