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Rochester Knighthawks Georgia Swarm NLL Playoffs 2018 NLL finals
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Random Thoughts: NLL Finals Set, No Scrubs, Press on CLA

We had one tumultuous week in lacrosse. The events unfolding surrounding the CLA put the lacrosse world on edge. We will get to that a little later, but needless to say the lacrosse world needed some good news this past weekend to get over the events unfolding for at least a little while. The opening round of the NCAA tournament certainly provided some of that relief. The two division finals in the NLL on the other hand provided some great lacrosse, including one game that was a defensive specialist’s dream. After a week of uncertainty, it was great to see something go right for a change.

Four In A Row

The Saskatchewan Rush are off to their fourth-straight NLL finals after a, 15-13, win in the West final on Sunday evening. Four championship appearances in a row hasn’t happened since the 1999-2003 Toronto Rock.

For the first 40 minutes of this game, the script was almost identical in this game as it was in the West semi-final. The Roughnecks had a poor opening half and were a little lucky they weren’t down a lot more. It took the Roughnecks more than 7 minutes to register a shot on goal, but it ended up being their opening goal. The shots were 19-7 at the end of the first quarter and 34-18 at the half. The Rush were getting second chances. The Roughnecks could hardly find a lane to get a shot off. Even with the nice lead at the half, you knew in the back of your mind that the Rush have blown far too many of these leads this season, and the script from a week earlier was a quick Calgary comeback.

Saskatchewan Rush Calgary Roughnecks NLL Playoffs 2018 Curtis Knight
Photo: NLL

And that’s exactly what happened. Three Roughneck goals in the opening five minutes of the half and the game was tied at 8, and Calgary had all the momentum. The Rush were doing little to stop the momentum. The Roughnecks won the opening five face-offs in the second half. The Rush weren’t getting a quick possession to settle themselves down after a goal. There was one difference this time. A week ago, the Mammoth packed it in tight and decided they weren’t going to let the Roughnecks beat them in close. On this night, the Rush had a different game plan, to press as far out as they could. On a few possessions with the game 8-7 and 8-8, the Rush were pressing the Roughnecks all the way out to half. It was a risky proposition. A simple pick and roll and the Roughnecks had a fast break to the “cage”. The key on the back end was that the Rush were wise to the pick and roll and were able to break up a large number of them.

Lacrosse is of course a game of momentum, and you never really know where you are going to find it sometimes. On this night it was a Robert Church shot that hit the bottom of the crossbar, landed about 6 inches over the line and spun out. Referee Ian Garrison emphatically waived it off, but it was an easy challenge for Derek Keenan and it was the momentum changer. Unlike a week ago, the Roughnecks wouldn’t bounce back quickly and a four goal run by the Rush would ultimately be the difference.

I had stated earlier in my interviews that discipline was going to be a key factor in this game and it certainly was. There were a lot of what I would call foolish penalties (to be nice about it) that happened during this game. Five minutes in, Jeremy Thompson, who had penalty problems in the last game of the regular season and took two minors in this game, took his first penalty of the night, 100 feet away from the net, on a settled play, in what was an obvious hold. There was zero need for Thompson to be that aggressive on that play. Luckily he got bailed out by the Rounghnecks during the TV timeout, who put too many players on the floor coming out of it, and the power-play was over with and we were back to 5 on 5. Later that quarter, Tyson Bell took a behind the play cross-checking penalty on Mark Matthews, just after the Roughnecks had caused a turnover. Instead of a fast break for Calgary, the Rush scored on the PP 10 seconds in and it was a momentum changer.

Saskatchewan Rush Calgary Roughnecks NLL Playoffs 2018
Photo: NLL

In the early second half, Mark Matthews uncharacteristically decided to chase down a play after a turnover, but with defenders behind him, he took a foolish holding penalty 130 feet away from his net, which led to an early Calgary goal to start the comeback in the second half. Both penalties the Rush took with 90 seconds to go in the game were completely foolish, although the second penalty was questionable at best. But the Roughnecks scored three times on the man-up situations in the fourth quarter and they almost came all the way back because of it. Clearly the Rush have to play a lot more disciplined in the finals.

The highsticking major to Sorichetti I had a big problem with. Dane Dobbie has always gone down like a ton of bricks in his career and there were three specific dives in the Colorado game which while he didn’t draw a bigger call out of the ref, should have been called dives to have him cut it out. He took a clear dive on the Sorichetti major. He was down like he was shot, but then good to go as soon as the five minutes was up on the board. He tried another dive later in the fourth quarter that didn’t work. If you penalize Dobbie, his own team starts to police it a bit too.

Diving is a big pet peeve of mine. It likely comes to the times I played and officiated ball hockey in Europe. You see how rampant it is if referees don’t call it, and it’s called far less often in Europe. I officiated one world ball hockey championships where the diving was so bad, by day two we started using a new signal for diving, to make it obvious to everyone what we were calling, and possibly, to embarrass the person getting called so it wouldn’t keep happening. I honestly hope that next year there is some effort put in during the officials clinics to call players for straight dives (only penalize the diver if no other penalty actually happened). It is allowable. Todd Labranche called Matt MacGrotty earlier this year on a straight dive. But maybe it needs to happen more often so it starts to go away.

The game on Sunday was a game of odd calls. There was the illegal substitution coming out of the timeout in the opening quarter. Then there was the challenge on the Roughnecks goal scored with no time left on the clock in the 3rd quarter. I’m a little surprised that Gardonio didn’t overturn the call, but Rush fans can’t be too disappointed. Earlier this year the Stealth got burned twice in the same game against the Rush where a goal was called with no time left on the clock and there was no real way to prove if the goal had crossed in time or not. Hopefully next year with the Bleacher Report improvements to the cameras, one thing they consider is that the overhead camera in every arena have the clock imprint on the shot so you can see if the ball crossed the line in time or not.

The other unusual call was a challenge by Calgary early in the fourth quarter after a Mark Matthews goal off a long outlet pass from Chris Corbeil. A long ways after the goal is scored, Calgary challenges the call and I’m thinking to myself, “what did I miss?” It wasn’t even close to a crease violation. What appears to have happened is that Calgary was challenging that Corbeil had thrown the outlet pass before play had been blown back in, which isn’t challengeable. Gardonio then reviewed the goal because the flag was already thrown, but it didn’t take him long to realize there was no crease violation. Then Ian Garrison comes over and another discussion starts to occur. Gardonio then reviews the play before the whistle in the Rush end to see if Calgary had scored, which was obvious too that they hadn’t. Calgary clearly hadn’t thrown the flag within 25 seconds of the play on the Rush end, but by that stage, nobody was keeping count.

One player I continue to be more and more impressed with is Christian Del Bianco. He may have let in 14 although he wasn’t getting too much help out the back door on Sunday. But here’s the key. CDB’s style of play allows him to do so many additional little things that help your team out, especially with his speed. His ability to grab loose balls well outside his crease and his stick skills to lead the transition are fantastic. But the last few minutes of the game on Sunday I saw something I hadn’t seen in a long time, possibly as far back as my days playing field lacrosse.

Saskatchewan Rush Calgary Roughnecks NLL Playoffs 2018
Photo: NLL

On the Rush’s final two possessions of the game, we saw Del Bianco well out of his net, chasing down Rush players and trying to force double teams. Now I have seen this before in the box game, but it’s normally close to the net. In this case, Del Bianco was way out close to the restraining line. Normally late in a game like this in the box game you simply leave your goalie on the bench if you’re trying to force a turnover, but Del Bianco has such great speed that the size of his equipment and his stick now become an asset in trying to force a turnover. I loved the heart in the Phenom doing what he could late in the game to try to keep his team in it. There was no retreat in him. And it’s these little things that he can do, that nobody else is doing currently, that just add to the arsenal of abilities that you have with him to help your team out.

In the end, what won it out for the Rush was a total offensive and transition effort. All seven forwards scored a goal. Nine players were responsible for the Rush goal scoring, including Ryan Dilks who doubled the number of goals scored on the season in this game alone with two. The Rush will need that type of offensive and transition effort in the finals to finally slay the Knighthawks. They’ll certainly need a better goaltending effort and they’ll need to finally put an end to the second half slumps that’s been their Achilles heel all year long.

Defense Rules the Day

On Saturday night the Rochester Knighthawks booked their first appearance in the NLL finals since their run of three straight championships between 2012 and 2014 with a nail-biting 9-8 win over Georgia. For the longest time, this game was such a defensive struggle that people were filtering through the record books as it could have ended up as the lowest scoring game in NLL history (11 combined goals). It might have been forgotten about the way the fourth quarter went, but at the end of the 3rd quarter, the score was only 4-3 Rochester.

On Rochester’s end, it was a combination of shutting off most of Georgia’s offensive weapons, especially Lyle Thompson who had just one goal on 16 shots in this game. Matt Vinc may have only faced 36 shots by the end of the 3rd quarter, but he had stopped 33 of them (0.912 save percentage to that point) and was on fire. He had to be that good as Georgia was having the same success shutting down the Rochester offense, only allowing 31 shots to that point and Mike Poulin (0.871 save percentage to that point).

Rochester Knighthawks Georgia Swarm NLL Playoffs 2018
Photo: NLL

What changed the game in the 4th quarter, and stopped the possibility of the lowest combined goal scoring in an NLL game, was that Rochester finally cracked Mike Poulin early in the 4th with four goals in the opening four minutes, and being down forced Georgia to open up and take more chances. It helped getting them back in the game and we finally saw Georgia play the game they should have been playing the first three quarters. But it was too little too late.

Once again there were some odd challenges, and once again the camera angles that were being used didn’t help matters, but luckily it went one goal each way. Miles Thompson scored one mid-way through the 4th quarter, which on the overhead appeared that he had stepped on the line. There was no corner camera angle to confirm this, and I was a little surprised when they officials ruled it inconclusive and allowed the goal to stand. It would even up for the Knighthaws minutes later when Lyle Thompson scored a beauty of a diving goal that was waived off due to a crease violation. This time Georgia challenged and the overhead provided no help as Thompson’s body was overtop of his foot and you couldn’t see whether he had stepped on the line or not.

In my opinion the goal shouldn’t have counted and Thompson sent to the box for goaltender interference, but the interference is not reviewable. With no corner camera angle, it was impossible to tell if the crease violation call was correct and the call stood. Rochester eventually withheld the final offensive onslaught and took the East final.

Rochester Knighthawks Georgia Swarm NLL Playoffs 2018
Photo: NLL

Looking Forward

Heading into the final, you have a Knighthawks team that stymied the Rush offense twice in the regular season and they will have to do that again to have a chance at winning this series. The Rush will have two weeks to study game film and figure out what they need to do against Rochester, but the key will be to find their openings and fire from distance. If the Rush try to force the ball inside, Rochester will have this shut down all night. The quick stick that the Rush are so proficient at also was stymied in past games as Vinc was wise to it, anticipated it and got over in time.

Rochester’s offense will have to put in a better performance however. If they expect to win a 9-8 game against the Rush, they’ll likely get burned. By the same token, Evan Kirk will need to have a better game than he did this week. Kirk was brought in for this specific purpose of giving the Rush that extra edge in the finals, and now it’s time for him to prove himself.

One other huge key will be discipline. The Rush played their second game in a row where discipline was a problem. These two teams were both over 60% efficiency on the power-play this season and against one another. Heading to the box will be a certain way to give up critical goals.

Game 1 Prediction

This call is certainly not an easy one. You never pick against the Rush unless you have a reason, but the Knighthawks beating the Rush twice this season is certainly a reason, and the differences between the two teams is so minimal it’s hard to pick.

For now, I’m going to take the Rush in game 1, given that they are at home and they are the better team. That being said, Rochester winning this game isn’t an upset.

Attendance Update

The Rush’s problems in securing arena time led to their worst attendance since the first half of their first season in Saskatoon at just 11,500. The Sunday game was one factor, so was Mothers’ Day, but so was the fact that farmers are in the fields at this point in the year, and a mistake by the Rush’s front office in requiring season ticket holders to purchase all three playoff tickets up front. They seem to have corrected this for game 1 of the finals, giving season ticket holders the chance to re-secure their seats for that game if they didn’t buy the Western Final ticket. But the three ticket requirement left a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of season ticket holders.

As for Georgia, luckily NLLTV shut off the camera at the far end of the Infinite Energy Arena, so you couldn’t judge the crowd in one shot. But they also backed the camera up and you could see just how empty the end seats were. If I had to guess, there were only 1,500 to 2,000 people in the stands. It will be interesting to see how well Rochester can improve on the 5,500 attendance they had for the Eastern semi-final now that they have three weeks to sell the game.

No Scrubs

It’s one week later and it appears that any hope of solving the situation between the CLA and the NLTPA is further off than it was previously. Let’s start off with something simple. The NLTPA has made it known for over 6 months now that it wants to meet and it wants to negotiate. The CLA has done everything imaginable not to meet, not to even recognize the NLTPA, and to attempt to assert its control. If you needed any clarification about that, a tweet released by Dillon Ward on Monday showed just how out of touch with reality the CLA is.

The Jane referred to in the emails is Jane Clapham, the Executive Director at the CLA, and when the rare circumstances occur that the CLA actually speak to the media, Jane is the one handling these comments. The messages from the CLA have been minimal, in my opinion misleading at times, and when you have this much attention on you, the fact that the CLA rarely speaks is quite discomforting to anyone following this situation closely.

The email from Jane is very telling into the mindset of the CLA. Their main priority is to ensure a team is going to the world championships and they will only entertain a meeting with the NLTPA after that priority has been met. The final sentence makes it very clear that the CLA does not wish to meet with the NLTPA anytime soon.

The CLA seems to be so out of touch with what almost everyone in the Canadian, and for that matter, worldwide lacrosse community have been telling them. The message is clear. WE ALL WANT THE BEST PLAYERS IN CANADA REPRESENTING CANADA IN ISRAEL. Full stop.

Until the CLA realizes that point, we will get nowhere. To get that top team, THEY MUST DEAL WITH THE NLTPA. Full stop. I hope this very simple two step reality sets in quickly, but after six months of nothing, I’m not holding my breath.

Instead the CLA has gone through the process of reaching out to potential replacement players. Kyle Rubisch and Bob Snider publicly revealed their rejections of the invites (although I’m still stunned the CLA made the offer to Bob as there was no way he was crossing his brother). Several prominent NCAA players publicly rejected invites as well. Good on these young men to realize there is something bigger that needs to be addressed here and that their personal interests are better served by rejecting the invitation.

One individual claimed he had received an offer and had accepted it. Whether he is telling the truth or seeking attention it is difficult to tell, but the instant and unanimous condemnation makes it very clear that anyone that dares to accept the invitation is putting their future lacrosse career at risk.

What’s To Negotiate

As much as the CLA has sent out messages that they are meeting the players’ demands, there is a lot of misleading information out there. Here’s the basic demands and what is currently being done about it:

Better Insurance – this demand has been partially met. The CLA has doubled the amount of insurance available to players. However, the offer is only applicable to the current field team. No confirmation to date has been received on whether the other national teams have been afforded the same coverage.

Costs Covered – the CLA has offered to cover the full costs from here on in for the team going to Israel, regardless of whether it’s the elite or replacement players. But no offer for any of the other national teams has been made.

Recognize and Negotiate with the NLTPA – the CLA has made it clear in their communications that recognition of the NLTPA won’t happen prior to Israel. I doubt their willingness to even recognize the NLTPA as no negotiation with them is happening and the CLA is clearly trying to bypass the NLTPA to reach the players. Furthermore, once the world championships ae over, what incentive would the CLA have to recognize the NLTPA at that point?

Four Year Deal – no movement has happened on a deal that involves all five national team programs.

Re-Establishment of Charitable Status – the federal government has confirmed that the CLA has indeed filed with the Canada Revenue Agency to have their charitable status reinstated. It is under review. Although it’s clear as well that this has been done on a basis that nobody on the CLA board is resigning. Whether the CRA will accept this is unknown.

Reinstatement of Former National Program Directors – there is no movement on this front. From what sources have told me, this portion might be extremely difficult to accomplish.

Now, one reason for obtaining the replacement players clearly is that there would be dire consequences for the CLA if they didn’t send a team to Israel at this stage. They would be disqualified from the U-19 women’s worlds next year that are being held in Peterborough. They would be disqualified from the 2022 men’s worlds. But going after replacements for that one sole purpose isn’t believable. If the CLA was actively negotiating with the NLTPA but obtaining a replacement team as a last resort at the same time, then that would be believable. But the CLA isn’t negotiating. Many people are of the opinion that the CLA went after replacement players for leverage. That’s just plain wrong.

Voices of the People

Here’s the real key to it all. The people in the lacrosse community are speaking and they’re speaking loudly. Lacrosse has always been about the community as the community isn’t all that large to begin with. The CLA is failing miserably to listen to the voices of the community. On the other hand, you rarely hear anyone state that the NLTPA should give up and just play.

These individuals in the CLA are supposed to be voted in to represent the people, and yet they fail to listen to those grass roots people responsible for putting them there in the first place. For now the voices of the people are focused on what can be done to get the best players to Israel. If July arrives and the top players aren’t there, the voices of the people will start to have a new focus.

Canada - 2015 World Indoor Lacrosse Champions

That new focus could be one of two things. One focus could be concerted efforts to change the directors of the CLA, or change the individuals who vote for the directors of the CLA. The other concerted effort could be that if removing those people becomes too burdensome, the next step would be to look at starting a new national governing body.

The CLA really has few options. If they stick on the path they are currently on, they have to hope that everyone has short memories and that people will forget about this once the worlds are over. But they do that at the risk of imploding the organization or fighting a major power struggle if people don’t forget about it. The other option is to take a deep breath, swallow their pride, and see if there is a solution where they can stay in charge but the top players still go to Israel. They’ll have to give a lot, they’ll receive certain critical things for themselves. If you want to see how the lacrosse community could develop short memories, that starts with the top players going to Israel.

There is far too much on the line here. Olympics are potentially around the corner. Potential future sponsors are watching the events unfold. Developing nations would be hurt with negative press and anything less than the top players playing in Israel. A large part of the lacrosse community has lost faith in the CLA. It’s now their time to prove they can pull off a miracle.

Expansion Draft

As promised last week I will be updating my databases and making new projections on the upcoming expansion draft in next week’s article. If you have any opinions as to whom you think your team will an won’t protect, please reply in the comments below, or send me a message on Twitter @evanschemenauer.

Until next time…