Guess who’s back… OK, a poor Slim Shady reference, but I’m happy I can finally look at a computer screen long enough to do this. I’ve had eye strain before, but nothing this bad. Unfortunately for all the readers out there, I had to spend what little time I could look at a computer screen at my paying job, and even then I missed several days of work because my eyes couldn’t take it any longer. But it looks like the eyes are on the mend, so let’s get back to it. Here’s what’s happening in the NLL.
New NLL Teams: Thunderbirds and Riptide
The big NLL announcement this week was the revelation of the team nicknames and logos for the soon-to-be relocated Rochester Knighthawks as the Halifax Thunderbirds and the new expansion New York Riptide (keeping in mind, next year’s Rochester Knighthawks are an expansion team with new ownership).
For the Halifax team, I’m a huge fan of the logo. As for the team nickname, I understand the connection Styres is attempting to make with First Nations culture and I will never disagree with that. To me, the better nickname to connect with fans in Halifax would have been the Privateers, but I don’t have a major issue with the name chosen.
The much bigger miss in my mind is NLL’s new team in New York. I’m okay with the logo, but there are two key misses in my mind with the nickname. First off, the Riptide has already been used as a pro lacrosse team nickname with the failed LA Riptide of the MLL. For those in the lacrosse community on Long Island, where the New York Lizards are from, this will immediately be in their mind. But also, there was a major opportunity missed in my opinion to rebrand this team as the Saints. This would conjure up images of the past for core lacrosse fans of packed arenas, crazy games against a few of their soon to be NLL East Division rivals. If you look at the Wings, and look at the connection those fans made with the team they loved for so long. Yes fans in New York would have to think further back, but that connection will help you drive the crowd you need.
Perhaps I’m a little more sentimental about the Saints. I think back to the first ever NLL game I attended. It was in January 2000 at the old Maple Leaf Gardens with the Rock playing the Saints. I believe the final was 9-5 Rock, and I still remember getting out of the subway station at College and in stunned amazement that there was a lineup most of the way between the Gardens and the station of people waiting to get into the game. If I can have memories like that, there will certainly be thousands of others in Long Island with sentimental memories of the Saints.
Rush Stop The Bleeding
When I last wrote, the Rush were on a roll. They were not only No. 1 in my LaxAllStars Power Rankings, they had just come off an impressive win against Rochester. Evan Kirk was seeing the ball extremely well. The new players on defense were working well within the system. And then everything fell apart. At first my mind went towards the point that the Rush normally don’t play well on the road against the East. Luckily the Rush don’t have any remaining road games against the East Division the rest of the year. The loss to Calgary a week ago was a stern wake up call to many lacrosse fans. This team had lost a step.
Now, you might wonder why this is happening. Yes, the Rush lost Sorichetti to the expansion draft and Cornwall and Dilks are taking a year off for firefighting training, but there are still a lot of pieces of the puzzle still in Saskatchewan. Why have things gone sideways? I put the difference to three key things. The first is simply confidence. When the Rush have had a team as strong as they have been the last five years, confidence in your ability to win is contagious and can help lead you to even more wins. Further, that same confidence can make teams afraid of you as well. That mental mind game plays out. The last several games however, the Rush simply have not been confident, and that loss of confidence has quickly dovetailed into one simple error after another. Simple passes being missed on a regular basis. Not forcing the game to your opponent so that they make mistakes, take penalties, and get that lethal power play out on the floor.
The second issue was still on full display in Vancouver the same as it was in the losses in Georgia, Toronto and against Calgary. When the Rush’s defensive core hasn’t changed in many years and players are used to playing with one another, they’re also used to dealing with the multitude of defensive slides that need to happen each and every possession. For those that are new to the game of lacrosse, I’ll explain the basics. If you played man to man defense every play, eventually someone is going to lose their assigned player every possession because either there was a pick set to free a man or an offensive player simply beat the defender on the play. In any form of defense, you must have the ability to slide. If you get picked, your teammate needs to pick up the free man and you need to pick up the offensive player that just set the pick. If somebody gets beat, the closest player needs to leave their man and slide to the open man, and someone else needs to slide to the guy that was left by the first slide. These moves require precision and just one player not doing their job, or one player sliding to the wrong guy and someone is wide open for a shot.
When most of these NLL players have played together for so long, they know what one another are going to do and who needs to pick up where. Now from time to time, a new piece of the puzzle, such as Messenger or Hossack has been added. Adding one small piece at a time isn’t the end of the world as you can mold that one player to fit what everyone else is doing. All of a sudden, you have two new pieces of the puzzle in Travis Cornwall and Jordie Jones-Smith, as well as two other pieces in Matt McGrotty and Nick Finlay who have limited action on the floor with this unit. It only takes one guy to fail on a slide to create a scoring chance. When you look at the game tape of the game in Vancouver, despite the win, the number of missed slides the defense had was tremendous. The Rush outshot the Warriors on Saturday night 52-43, but it was a close game because of the quality of opportunities the Warriors were getting.
The other thing that is missing from the Rush is not so much its defense, but the transition coming from that defense. Both Jeff Cornwall and Sorichetti were amongst the top transition scorers in the league and it was that transition that made the Rush so dangerous. I was given a stat by one reader. Six games into the season, the Rush had scored 8 transition goals. The year prior, it was 26. It’s a combination effect. The Rush don’t have the goal production from the transition. Their defenders have to be more cautious on defense so they can’t push out on transition as easy as they could in the past. Also, their opponent’s defense isn’t as worn down at the end of the game as they’re not chasing down as many transition opportunities and fewer offensive players are being trapped playing defense.
In the end, the Rush broke their losing streak Saturday night against the Warriors with a 15-13 win off of a Jeff Shattler goal on his offhand side but with space. Adam Shute got the chance to start. He didn’t have a strong game. He did make some huge saves down the stretch to keep the Rush in it. The key though was that the Rush still got a win and Shute got a chance to get some floor time. Not only does it help keep your starter a bit better rested, but should Shute be needed, he needs floor time to be ready if that time comes. Despite how disorganized it was at times, the offense hit their shots when it counted. The defense though still needs a lot of work. They get to face a Colorado squad this year that has struggled to get its offense going, so it will be a test to see if they can shut down a team at home. Colorado has an NLL-leading lowest number of goals scored with 86 and second-lowest goals scored per game of 10.75.
As for the Warriors, a good effort against a top team, but still another loss. They have more wins this season than they do last season, but having played two more games than the teams in front of them, they’ll need to push to get in the playoffs. Eric Penney had been a ray of light this season. His GAA may have increased from 8.88 to 9.81 on Saturday, but he’s still tops in the NLL by some distance (second best is Matt Vinc at 10.48). He’s also second in save percentage at 0.790. His timing is also key. With the personal struggles that Aaron Bold is going through, Penney needed to lift his team. While it may be opportunistic, that’s the way the game goes, and the Warriors have to stay with the hot hand. Whether Bold’s head would be in the game 100% given everything happening off the floor is tough to say. Luckily the Warriors don’t need to worry about that for the time being, which not only helps the team, it helps Bold focus on what truly is most important at the moment. Jordan McBride also continued his shining year with four goals. For a team like Vancouver that needed improvement everywhere, to get guys like McBride and Bal going is critical to getting the rebuild started.
Wings and Black Wolves Split
This could have been a huge week for both the Black Wolves and Wings. A Black Wolves sweep would have meant the end of any realistic chance for the Wings to make the playoffs. With the Black Wolves at 5-3 and the Wings at 1-8, the Wings would have been playing the rest of the season to set themselves up for next year. Plus, the Black Wolves would have put 3.5 games between themselves and idle Rochester for that final playoff spot. On the flipside, a Wings sweep would have put them right in the mix for the last playoff spot. A sweep would have put the Wings at 3-6 and the Black Wolves at 3-5. Instead, the two teams split the weekend, with Philly winning at home 14-10 and New England winning at home 17-11. The result still gives New England some space for the last NLL playoff spot, but doesn’t completely eliminate Philly.
The difficulty for Philly is they are 3.5 games back of New England with 8 to play. With Georgia 4.5 games ahead of Philly, time is slowly running out on Philly to climb the ladder high enough, so they’ll have to go on a run soon to make it to the NLL playoffs. While Rochester is 2.5 games back, they still have 10 games to play, and are in far better position to catch New England.
NLL Kings of Close Games
Yes, the Toronto Rock are 7-1, and it’s rarely a fluke when a team has that good of a record, and it certainly isn’t with the Rock either. While two of those wins are against Philly, they’ve also beat the Rush, the Swarm and the Bandits.
But the more outstanding part of their success is that they’ve played five – 1 goal games in their 8 games so far, and they’ve won four of them. To me, this is a good thing. The key here, is that each of the last four games, when the game has been on the line late, they haven’t caved into the pressure and pulled out the win. That might not say much now, but it pays off dividends when it comes to the playoffs and that same pressure is on. Guys aren’t buckling under pressure and they’ve had more live experience defending a 6-on-5.
With the expanded NLL playoffs this year, the Rock and Bandits are now 5 games up on Rochester for a playoff spot and you can practically book them in already. The rest of this NLL regular season becomes about playing for first place and making tweaks in your game to be playoff ready. Some people have asked about how much first place means now that there isn’t a first round bye for the division champion. It’s bigger than you think.
The first key, especially in the East, is to look at home records. Buffalo is 5-1 at home this season. Toronto, Georgia and New England are all 4-1. Between the four of them, they are a combined 17-4 or 81%. That should make it crystal clear as to how important home floor advantage is. By the same token, if the playoffs begin today, the first place team is playing New England, who is 1-3 on the road. Both Buffalo and Toronto would likely want that match-up a little more than they would the prospect of playing Georgia in the opening round.
The Wild Wild West
One bad Slim Shady reference deserves an equally bad Will Smith reference doesn’t it?
If you think back to just one year ago, there was an NLL East Division where in the final week of the year, nobody was in the playoffs and nobody was out. Could we be heading to something similar in the West this year? It’s unlikely to happen now that four teams are in the playoffs. At the moment however, you have a three way tie for first, Colorado one game back and Vancouver two games back.
Some teams will have their destiny more in their own hands than others. The Rush have 10 games remaining, and 8 of them are against western opponents, and their two out of conference games are at home. Vancouver and Calgary on the other hand have 8 games remaining, and four of them are out of conference. Colorado also has 8 of their last 10 against western opponents. For San Diego, 6 of their final 10 are in conference.
Having a division loaded schedule like the Rush or Mammoth can be advantageous because if you win, you can propel yourself forward faster. But it’s a double edged sword in that you can fall behind that much faster as well.
Needless to say, like Teddy and I both mentioned on the podcast this week, for the first time in years the Rush aren’t running away with the West. Home records in the West aren’t as lopsided as they are in the East. However, wanting to play at home will still be as important to the teams in the West. Since 2015, the Rush are a combined 7-1 in the NLL’s Western Division playoffs, and the only loss came in game 2 of the West final in 2015, on the road in Calgary. If teams have a method that they can avoid the SaskTel Centre in the playoffs, they’ll take it.
Short But Sweet
This week, Random Thoughts will be a little shorter than normal. My eyes might be healing, but I don’t want to push them harder than they should.
In the meantime, have fun watching the three games this weekend, and make sure to keep an eye out for more fundraisers for Michelle Bold, wife of Aaron Bold, who is battling Stage 4 cancer. I know that Eric Penney, Jake Elliott and Julian Kolb are having a swimming race to help raise funds (I just hope the tsunami warning centre is ready for when they dive into the pool). Tyson Geick might be setting up an auction for a piece of merchandise and Boldy has also set up a GoFundMe page. Do whatever you can to help.
Until next time…
For all the latest, follow me on Twitter @SchemLax and check out the latest Lacrosse Classified podcast on Lax All Stars, or on Twitter @LaxClass