Random Thoughts: NLL Finals Built for a Grand Finale
Is everybody excited for NLL Finals Game 3? Well perhaps not if you’re a Rush fan as you would have loved for it to be over with last Saturday, but for everybody else, we have a series that will go to the bitter end, which is exactly what everyone else wanted to see.
Take a Bow, Matt Vinc
We came into this series knowing that either goaltender had the ability to steal a game in this series, and last Saturday, we saw just that. Rochester pulled out a 13-8 victory to force the game 3, and the main reason for their success was Matt Vinc. The Rush had a quick 2-0 lead in the opening three minutes, and it looked like they were off to the races. But over the next 47 minutes, Vinc would only allow 3 goals, and in the end, that was the difference. It wasn’t that the Rush offense was terrible, it was a night where VInc was seeing the ball well and kept nearly everything out. During that 45 minute stretch, the Rush had approximately 38 shots on goal. Vinc wasn’t the only reason Rochester was able to turn the tide, but he was the key reason. He was able to give his team that much more confidence to do what they needed to do. When everything was said and done, the Rush actually outshot the Knighthawks 56-52.
Vinc did get into the heads of the Rush offense. As much as the Rush were doing things right and taking their shots from outside, not allowing the ball to be turned over with an extra pass, the Rush were clearly rushing shots off several times during the game. This isn’t unusual when you are a little more desperate to get something past the goaltender.
But a simple look at the stats starts to show how this picture emerged. The Rush had 80 loose balls in game 1 and 81 in game 2. Rochester on the other hand went from 55 in game 1 to 90 in game 2. Part of that has to do with the simple fact that the Rush weren’t scoring as often, but that’s just 8 out of the 35 loose ball increase. The Rush offense had 34 loose balls in game 1 and just 23 in game 2. The number of second chances the Rush had dropped dramatically. On the other hand, Rochester’s offense went from just 11 loose balls in game 1 to 29 in game 2.
Saskatchewan’s woes on faceoffs continued in game 2. In game 1, Jake Withers won 71% of his faceoffs and in game 2 it was 72%. People put different weights into the faceoff figures, but when Rochester is getting an extra nine possessions throughout the game just on faceoffs, that makes a difference. If game 3 is a tight game and these figures continue, Jake Withers could indeed be the difference for Rochester. While Withers was 66% in faceoff wins during the regular season, you would expect that Jeremy Thompson would be able to hold him to a lower percentage instead of Withers’ figures increasing. Thompson was just 5 of 20 on faceoffs whereas Mike Messenger was 3 for 5. One question you have to raise is whether Messenger should take more draws given Thompson’s struggles in both games.
Another key was Rochester taking the necessary steps to limit the Rush’s transition opportunities. In game 1, they allowed six transition goals and had just one transition point of their own. In game 2, Saskatchewan had just one point from their defense, a Nik Bilic assist on Jeff Shattler’s goal midway through the 4th quarter. Rochester on the other hand went from one point in game 1 to 11 in game 2. Graeme Hossack was a wrecking ball on transition, causing the Rush problems all night long. The highlight from him was a crazy bounce shot half way through the third quarter. This shot had to be virtually perfect to get it past Kirk, and he managed to place it just under the crossbar, bouncing it several feet outside of the crease. As for Rochester’s offense, they weren’t turning the ball over invulnerable positions like they did in game 1 and it allowed their defense the time to get on the floor and put a stop to the Rush transition game.
For the Rush, you never know which forward is going to shine in any game, and it was Jeff Shattler on Saturday. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a major surprise that Shattler is the offensive star, but in a lineup with so many superstars in Saskatchewan, Shattler hasn’t had to carry as big of a load on offense. His first goal was a thing of beauty. Mark Matthews threw a pass, not to Shattler, but to a spot on the floor in front of the crease, expecting that Shattler could get there. How Shattler managed to get to that ball, stuff it past VInc and keep his feet out of the crease is beyond me.
Stunningly, in both games so far, the winning team struggled on the power-play. The Rush were officially 1 for 7, although realistically 0 for 3 in game one. In game two, Rochester was 0 for 5. In both games, the winning team could have had a far more significant margin of victory had they been running at the 60% plus efficiency that both teams are accustomed to.
I’m still uncertain as to why Dan Dawson was inserted into the line-up in game 2 in favour of Curtis Knight. Had there been news that Knight was injured, clearly it’s the right choice. But as of now, there has been no news of any such injury.
Dan Dawson is one of the greatest players of all time, no question. But Knight simply fits better into the offensive system the Rush have set up. Dawson had just one point, a goal with one tenth of a second left in the game. Would Knight have been the difference, it’s impossible to say. I highly doubt that unless Knight is indeed injured that he will be the healthy scratch in game 3.
How do you pick between these teams, especially when Rochester has won three out of four meetings this year? It’s not easy. This is the third year in a row that the now championship trophy will be handed out at the SaskTel Centre. In the last two, one was won with 12 seconds to go and the other in overtime. Can we expect another game like that? You never know, but if it does, it will be an instant classic.
I’m going to stick with a simple formula. Overall, top to bottom, the Rush are the better of the two teams. They’ll be able to feed off the home crowd to get their momentum. So I’m taking the Rush to win their 3rd cup in 4 years. But if you picked Rochester, I wouldn’t debate you on it.
But what I will say is that those that could be in Saskatoon, but aren’t there, are probably going to miss something special. I’m glad my good friend Gary Groob will be able to make the flight from Toronto to take in the festivities as well.
Good on Rochester
For game 2 of the finals, and with the Rush having the potential to win the cup on the road, the Rush organization flew their staff to Toronto, for a road trip from there for the game. Amongst their group was Kelvin Ooms, better known as the Rush Hulk, and unfortunately known this season for at first being denied entrance to the Calgary Saddledome during a road trip he had organized full of Rush fans to attend the game. Eventually the decision was reversed, but not without some terrible press for the Roughnecks.
So it was a delight that not only did the Knighthawks not have an issue with Kelvin wearing the costume to the game, they personally called him to ensure him that they were happy for him to wear it. Now normally you wouldn’t call to invite a visiting mascot, but given the events earlier this season, it was a very nice touch by Rochester to let everyone know in advance that there would not be a repeat performance of what happened in Calgary, and to put an end to any potential controversy right away. Hopefully the Roughnecks take note if the road trip heads there again next year.
The league’s choices for broadcasters continued to stun me this past week with the selection of Jay Alter to do the play by play for game 2 of the finals. Jay was at a previous Twitter Game of the Week (with Jake Elliott and Brad Challoner mysteriously sitting in the radio booth for a home game) and needless to say, Jay put on one of the worst performances of the year.
Now to an extent, it made sense to keep Brendan Glasheen and Brian Shanahan together for the start of the playoffs. They’ve been working together for most of the season and have a system down by this point. I was a little surprised that they broadcasted both ends of the division finals only because it was one hellacious flight to get from Atlanta to Saskatoon, and one delayed plane could have put plans in jeopardy, but in the end it worked.
But then game 2 of the finals comes along, and no Brendan due to his commitments with LSN. Now, here’s an opportunity to reward one of your regular broadcasters for the good work they do. Within earshot, and closer to Rochester than Jay Alter was, you have Andy McNamara, John Gurtler, Stephen Stamp and Rochester’s own Craig Rybczynski. All four of these guys are well experienced broadcasters and I know we would be happy for any of them to be doing the broadcast. But instead, in the chair is Jay Alter, with little experience broadcasting box lacrosse and a bad game on his resume.
Like the players, other individuals strive to be at the top of their game to be in the finals. For referees, it is a huge reward to be told that they are the best of the best and will be working the finals, and getting that assignment can be quite competitive at times. With broadcasters, it’s the same. When you’re trying to showcase your best product in the finals, with the most viewers watching, you should have the best of the best working it.
The fans of the game deserve that much.
Brian Shanahan is one of the best colour commentators in the league, and deserves to be in that chair. As for his partner, he deserves to be working with the best.
The broadcast went better than I expected, although it’s clear that Jay is still unfamiliar with several of the rules of the box game. For those not aware, Jay will be in the play by play chair again for game 3. Once again, this confuses me. The two last Borelli winners for top media person in the NLL are both broadcasters, and both live out west in Jake Elliott and Teddy Jenner.
To this end, I put out a survey on Twitter this weekend asking the fans who they would like to see. Jake Elliott received 50% of the votes, Teddy Jenner 42%, Jay Alter received just 2%, or three total votes. Other broadcasters received the other 6%, including two write-in votes for myself. I’m flattered, but that wouldn’t happen. But it was quite clear who the fans wanted to see broadcast the game.
Jay Alter, with time, could possibly turn into a great broadcaster, but his time isn’t now. Needless to say, I, and many other NLL fans, are disappointed that the best of the best aren’t there.
On the positive side, I was very impressed with Ashley Docking’s sideline reporting. This is never an easy job as normally it is filling some dead time and you’re asking questions of coaches who won’t tell you any secrets. Ashley on the other hand keeps the interviews lively and anything but repetitive. Good work.
Let’s remind ourselves that as I write this, it is 35 days to the opening game of the World Lacrosse Championships, and we still don’t have a Team Canada, nor does any progress seem to have been made the last while. I’m hopeful the two sides will meet this week still, but the clock is ticking.
Whether there is a back-up team or who is on it, we still don’t know. All I can tell you is that as a former long pole that played at the Worlds for Bermuda, and was 70lbs lighter at the time, I’m disappointed I haven’t received the phone call as to whether I would go yet as a replacement player. The CLA hasn’t gone down the list that far yet.
Until next time… when we finally have an NLL champion crowned.
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