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Rochester Knighthawks Buffalo Bandits 2016 NLL Photo: Micheline V
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NLL Report: This League is On FIRE

Editor’s Note: Thanks to the help of the innovative team at SISU Guard, the Official Mouthguard of the NLL, we’ve beefing up our National Lacrosse League coverage! We hope you enjoy our look at the 2016 NLL season through a new lens with the aid of our partner SISU!

This is better than we could have ever asked for! No one got eliminated last weekend so the scenarios get even murkier. Calgary and Vancouver are both in MUST win situations, Georgia got breathing room and Rochester is living on a prayer. PLUS the top spot in the NLL is still up for grabs, does it get any better? …don’t answer that Toronto fans.

East coast-based Ryan Conwell covers the New England/Georgia and Buffalo/Rochester affairs and since I’m on the left coast, I’ll take care of the Toronto/Colorado and Saskatchewan/Vancouver showdowns.

Georgia Swarm (7-10) @ NE Black Wolves (10-6)

1 2 3 4 TOTAL
Georgia 5 1 4 1 11
N England 3 6 5 7 21
56 19 80 17-37 4-10
66 17 74 20-37 1-6

Quick Thoughts

  • Shawn Evans still has MVP potential
  • New England is more explosive than I thought
  • Georgia can still go cold

Both team still had plenty to be playing for, although Georgia more so. New England was fighting for the top spot in the conference and then the league while Georgia is still trying to get that last Eastern playoff seed.  Georgia came out hot, but cooled off considerably while New England seized every opportunity they had. It was a complete reversal and then some from their game against each other a week ago.

Georgia Notes

New England Black Wolves Georgia SwarmNLL Photo: Ryan Conwell

Georgia really needed this win clinch up the final playoff spot in they came out fast and aggressive and I really thought they were going to make this a game like their last trip up to the Mohegan Sun. Their defense did a great job early on New England set offense, only giving up one goal to even numbers. By the time the second quarter rolled around, New England had figured out what to do. Brodie MacDonald started very strong in net, but as the Black Wolves piled on the points late in the game, the coaches sent Zach Higgins in to see if he would fare any better. He would not.

As has happened a few times this year for the Swarm, the offense went cold. Jesse King, Shayne Jackson, and Randy Staats led the way for the Swarm, but they were the only bright spots. Jonny Powless didn’t score a single goal despite 14 attempts and even Lyle Thompson was only one for 10.  When the team really needed the points the most, nobody was able to figure out how to get it past the New England defense with any sort of consistency. 11 goals is respectable against New England, but they will need much better if they plan on making, and then winning in, the playoffs.

New England Black Wolves Georgia SwarmNLL Photo: Ryan Conwell

Speaking of playoffs, the Swarm got lucky in having Rochester lose their game to Buffalo over the weekend. That leave Georgia in the driver’s seat to find the postseason. To get there, they will have to beat Vancouver, who is also keeping a dimming playoff hope alive out West. These teams have not played each other yet this year, so for Georgia’s sake, hopefully some home field advantage can help them, even though they are just 3-5 in Georgia this season.

New England Notes

New England Black Wolves Georgia SwarmNLL Photo: Ryan Conwell

New England didn’t necessarily come out cold on offense, but they scored enough to keep things close. By the time the second quarter rolled around, the offense found the back of the next much more consistently. This did not at all compare to the onslaught brought on by Shawn Evans in the fourth quarter. Evans and the rest of the Black Wolves seemed like they couldn’t miss late in the game. He eventually finished with 11 points off of five goals and six assists. Pat Saunders, Kyle Buchanan, Kevin Buchanan, and Kevin Crowley all has six points while Jordan Hall had five. It was very much a team effort from the Black Wolves on offense.

The defense was equally impressive. They usually don’t get much in the way of transition goals, but the stat sheet lit up this week. Sheldon Burns led the way among defenders with two goals and two assists. Steven Hoar, Dan Ball, Bill O’Brien, Brett Bucktooth, and Brett Manney each had one or more assists while John Ranagan joined Burns in the scoring column. Aside from their point scoring, they actually did a phenomenal job keeping Georgia away from the net. As the Black Wolves pulled away, the defense tightened up. They maintained physical play through the entire game and made sure Evan Kirk did not get put into bad situations. The worst situation they found themselves in was actually a two man down penalty kill and they came out without giving up a goal. Kirk made some fantastic saves, but the defense also gets credit for limiting Georgia to mostly outside shots during that span of time.

New England Black Wolves Georgia SwarmNLL Photo: Ryan Conwell

The win wound up allowing New England to keep pace with Buffalo in the East. The Black Wolves actually still have a shot at the overall number one seed, but they need to win both games next weekend and have the Rush lose their game. It’s certainly possible, but I would not call it likely. Fortunately, they play Buffalo head to head, which does help their situation a little more.  Also to note is Shawn Evans is on pace to break his points record from last season. Dhane Smith already did, but if Smith has an off night against New England and if Evans has two monster nights, we could see Evans top of the points leader board, which would be nothing short of amazing.

Buffalo Bandits (12-5) @ Rochester Knighthawks (6-10)

1 2 3 4 TOTAL
Buffalo 3 4 0 2 9
Rochester 3 3 2 5 13
60 23 82 19-32 2-3
55 18 74 13-32 2-3

Quick Thoughts

  • The Thruway Rivalry is still intense
  • Dhane Smith broke the scoring record
  • Buffalo still has not clinched the top seed

Both teams still had more than enough to play for, so this stage was set for a dramatic game. Fortunately for fans in the sold-out Blue Cross arena, this did not disappoint.  The game was back and forth all night with each team making big runs in the fourth quarter to close it out.  Unfortunately for the Knighthawks, time ran out just a little too quickly.

Buffalo Notes

Any talk about Buffalo this season starts and ends with Dhane Smith. His eight points were once again evenly balanced between goals and helpers, notching four of each. Those eight points were enough for him to jump past Shawn Evans’ 130 points from last season, giving him the new record for points in a season.  In what probably won’t make Evans too happy, Smith’s 131st point to give him the record outright was on an empty net with just six seconds remaining in the game. I won’t knock him for that though. Almost every one of those other 130 points were well-earned and he had to fight for them all.  Congratulations to Dhane on setting the NLL bar just a little bit higher. He still has one more game to go!

Rochester Knighthawks Buffalo Bandits 2016 NLL Photo: Micheline V
Photo: Micheline V

As far as the rest of the team is concerned, the Bandits once again had solid performances out of Ryan Benesch and Mark Steenuis who had five and six points respectively. What really gave Buffalo the win was their six point run in the fourth quarter. Six of those were in a single four-minute span. Steenhuis, Smith, or Benesch were involved in each one of those goals, including Steve Priolo’s transition score (Smith had the assist). This run had the Knighthawks on their heels and forced them to go to the extra attacker for their last several goals. Anthony Cosmo stood tall in net and allowed the Bandits to hold onto their first place spot for now.

What Buffalo needs now is to beat New England to earn the top seed in the East and a the first round bye that comes with it. If the beat the Black Wolves and the Rush lose their game, Buffalo goes all the way to the top seed in the league, which is home field advantage for the Champions Cup Finals should they make it that far.

Rochester Notes

Rochester Knighthawks Buffalo Bandits 2016 NLL Photo: Micheline V
Photo: Micheline V

Rochester had great production out of their top two workhorses in Dan Dawson and Cody Jamieson. As is usually the case for the Knighthawks, when those two are putting up numbers, the team does well. In this case though, they were mostly assists. Joe Resetarits was the primary goal scorer with four and Cory Vitarelli was right behind him with three. Given that Jamieson took 16 total shots, 12 of which were on goal, the Knighthawks really had a chance at winning this game. Stephen Keogh was also just one for eight shooting, but he’s more than forgiven, because just check out how he scored that one goal:

The defense for the Knighthawks also play pretty well. Matt Vinc’s 45 were not far off from his season average and if not for Buffalo’s big fourth quarter run, they did a good job holding the Bandits in check. The Achilles heel for this defense has been their man down unit. Sitting at second from the bottom in the league, they allowed Buffalo to score on every single man-up opportunity. When the game is as close as this one was, those points matter. One or two stops there could have changed everything.

From here, the Knighthawks now need some help. In order to get into the playoffs, they need to beat two of the best teams in the league back to back. First up is the visiting Rush, followed by a trip to New England in what will be the last game of the regular season. They still need Georgia to lose to Vancouver, which is possible. If you like excitement and big finishes, here’s what you want to hope for: Rochester beats Saskatchewan, New England beats Buffalo, and Vancouver beats Georgia. If all of that happens, Sundays game between the Knighthawks and Black Wolves will be to decide if New England gets the top seed in the league, or if Rochester gets into the postseason at all. Either way, both teams are playing hard until the end.

Toronto Rock (5-12) @ Colorado Mammoth (11-6)

1 2 3 4 TOTAL
Toronto 1 1 1 2 5
Colorado 3 0 4 3 10
54 19 73 9-19 0-3
45 27 75 10-19 2-4

Quick Thoughts

  • It looks like Grant and Jones are rotating off-weeks
  • Dillon Ward…WOW!
  • Did the Rock give up, or get shut down?

Over fourteen thousand rowdy lacrosse faithful packed into the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver, Colorado for the second to last home game of the 2016 Colorado Mammoth season. The Rock knew going into the contest that any playoff hopes were already up in smoke and the Mammoth had their home playoff game locked up. The game was essentially just killing time. Regardless, no matter how much of a fight the Rock put up, Ward was swallowing everything between the pipes.

Toronto Notes

Colorado Mammoth Toronto Rock 2016 Photo: Jack Dempsey
Photo: Jack Dempsey

It’s hard to expect much out of teams that already know they have no shot at making the postseason. You can play pissed off if you want to, or test out the rookies and different groupings for next year, or you can just show up and get it over with like what the Rock seemed to do last weekend. I think lackluster could be accurately used to describe the Toronto offensive group, Stephan Leblanc was ripping Le-blanks (sorry) taking 14 shots and not hitting a single one of them. On a positive note, defenseman Sandy Chapman scored his first goal of the season and rookies Dan Lintner and Turner Evans also hit solo shots before it was all said and done.

The only big sticks to score for the Rock were Rob Hellyer and Kasey Biernes, yet they only found twine once each. Nick Rose blocked a passable 35 of 44 shots on goal, but it was his defense not showing him a whole lot of love, although they did do a solid job at staying out of the box. There’s not much more to say about a team that’s just cruising it out until summer ball starts again.

Vancouver should be sending envelopes of money to the Rock in an attempt to convince them to pull out everything they’ve got against the Roughnecks on Saturday. If the Stealth win out, their fate falls into Toronto’s hands. Even though they’ve got nothing left to play for, it’s got to be exciting knowing you can wreck two different seasons either way.

Colorado Notes

Colorado Mammoth Toronto Rock 2016 Photo: Jack Dempsey
Photo: Jack Dempsey

The Mammoth were good, not great, but it’s all they needed to get the job done. From all that I can tell, Adam Jones was just a healthy scratch as they have been rotating him and John Grant Jr. off the floor. Still doing his thing, Callum Crawford came up with another five points, his only goals coming as the first two of the game. Transition defender Ilija Gajic made a push to score his seventh of the season, before collecting his eighth on an empty-net at the end of the game. Working for a pair of goals each, Eli McLaughlin and Junior both chipped in their part and rounding things out, Mike Mallory and Josh Sullivan each picked up a goal as well in the winning effort.

Colorado Mammoth Toronto Rock 2016 Photo: Jack Dempsey
Photo: Jack Dempsey

Between the irons, Dillon Ward was on top of his game, keeping 49 of 52 shots out of the net, posting double-digit stops in every frame. At the face-off dot, Dan Coates finished only at .500 on eighteen attempts, with Jeremy Noble going one for one to help out. The powerplay unit is still clicking, coming up with a 50% night, but it was the penalty-kill group that really stood out, warding off all three man-down situations.

At this point, a win or a loss doesn’t make a difference for the Mammoth. They’ve already locked up a home game in the playoffs and the Rush are just out a reach for the top seed. They’ve got the Stealth up next and there couldn’t be a more desperate team left in the NLL, then they take on the Swarm, also fighting to claim a final spot. It’s going to be interesting to see how much effort they put into ruining other team’s seasons.

Saskatchewan Rush (12-5) @ Vancouver Stealth (5-11)

1 2 3 4 TOTAL
Sask. 1 3 3 5 12
Vancouver 4 4 3 3 15
59 17 80 15-28 5-8
54 13 83 13-28 1-4

Quick Thoughts

  • Mark Matthews isn’t a big Stealth fan
  • Hear that sound? It’s Vancouver finally clicking

Four-thousand four-hundred lacrosse fans shuffled into the Langley Events Centre for what would be the last time in 2016. With no chance of a home playoff game, the desperate Stealth took the floor against the steam-rolling Rush, which they were locked up in a series with, 1-1. Somehow, someway, Vancouver would slip by the league’s top team and keep their heads above water heading into the final week.

Saskatchewan Notes

Vancouver Stealth Saskatchewan Rush 2016 NLL Photo: Garrett James
Photo: Garrett James

The Rush got off to an uncharacteristically slow start, only finding the back of the net once in the entire first quarter. It was Ben McIntosh taking advantage of the only penalty of the frame to put a late dent in a three goal run by the Stealth, only to let in another with just two seconds left. Kyle Rubisch would bury the first goal for the defensive group, only after Vancouver would hit twice. Forwards Mark Matthews and Robert Church would both get their first goal of the game on the powerplay, only to be match by a couple more Stealth goals, once again losing the quarter to the home team.

Starting off the second half down 8-4, Church and Matthews would get back on the board to start closing the gap before but a three goal spree by the Stealth quiet their thunder. Legging it himself, Chris Corbeil knocked down a late third quarter goal to even out the frame at three goals each with fifteen minutes left to play. Pushing to make another run, it was Church and Matthews popping off another two goals closing the lead to two, before exchanging two goals each with Vancouver. Coming in hard with his fifth goal, Matthews brought the game within one but a last minute effort past Aaron Bold would give the Stealth the unbeatable two goal lead. Bold would finish with a 74% save average, with double digit stops in the second through fourth quarters. Cleaning up at the draw circle, Jeremy Thompson walked away with 15 of 28 wins and a couple of helpers in the tight loss.

They’ve already locked up the Western Conference for the regular season, but they could also claim that top spot in the NLL with a win at Rochester on Saturday AND a New England win in Buffalo at the same time. They’ll have an answer when they walk off the floor this weekend. Either way, they’ve locked up the home playoff game and the bye, so now it’s prep time.

Vancouver Notes

Vancouver Stealth Saskatchewan Rush 2016 NLL Photo: Garrett James
Photo: Garrett James

Pinch me if I’m dreaming, but the Stealth just played their best lacrosse of the year, beat the #1 seed in the Western Conference and are still in the playoff hunt going into the final weekend of the season. It all opened up with the first goal of the season for the American, Chris O’Dougherty, going coast to coast to fire up the bench. Joel McCready would follow not much after and goals from Logan Schuss would sandwich the only powerplay opportunity of the quarter for the Rush. Garrett Billings would hit the only powerplay shot of the night for the Stealth to opening the door for McCready to knock down two more goals in the second quarter. The Rush would pick up two more goals on powerplays in a quarter that saw a handful of penalties for each bench. The half would be closed out by Rhys Duch with two seconds left after Vancouver pulled Richard to get the extra-attacker.

Schuss would score another two goals in the third, on either side of Corey Small’s first strike of the game, but Saskatchewan would put up just as many points to make the effort a wash heading into the final frame. Matthews and the Rush offense wouldn’t go down without a fight, banging in five goals only to be broken up by Duch and Small in the middle of the period. Saskatchewan closed the gap within one with only a couple of minutes left, but a timely goal from McCready would seal the deal with a 14-12 victory. Capturing the win, goaltender Tyler Richard went nearly 80% on 47 shots on goal, 27 of which came in the first half alone. The defense was just as sharp in front of him, keeping the Rush shooters from letting loose like they did they last time the two met when Saskatchewan put up 24.

Vancouver Stealth Saskatchewan Rush 2016 NLL Photo: Garrett James
Photo: Garrett James

With the win, Vancouver is still alive in the playoff hunt. I repeat, still alive in the playoff hunt. To get in they must win this weekend in Colorado AND Georgia PLUS Calgary must lose to the already eliminated Rock. Calgary has the late game on Saturday, so even if the Stealth pull out a couple of monumental wins this weekend, they will have to watch their fates get settled after it’s all over. Talk about drama.

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Let us know your thoughts on the playoff race! Can Vancouver still get in? Who wins the East? Tell us in the comments below!