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Random Thoughts: Parity in the League, Records Broken and Insight on Wes Berg’s Holdout

Another week in the NLL is in the books and we’ve seen another set of results that tell you to never expect a result to be certain in this league.  Calgary, without four offensive weapons, beats Colorado on the road. Toronto barely escapes Philly on a poor offensive decision late in the game by the Wings.  Vancouver gives Georgia a scare on the road. You have to love the parity in this league when any game, any week can produce any result.

By the same token, when your podcast partner goes 5-0 during the week and moves 1 game ahead of you in the Who Ya Got standings, well, you need to exact a slow revenge.  Let’s take a quick look on what happened.

Rock Escape

There weren’t many people who gave the Wings a shot when they played Toronto Friday night and understandably so.  Toronto had a great performance against Georgia the week prior, only to be defeated by some late game heroics of Lyle Thompson.  But in this one, the Rock would only escape 11-10 in overtime. The late game heroics of Tom Schreiber tied the game up at 10 with just 20 seconds to go.  Philly up one with 40 seconds to go and the ball in their possession took a shot early in the shot clock. Toronto had put Tom Schreiber and Rob Hellyer out on defense in the hope of turning the play around quickly, and it paid off with Schreiber going the length of the floor and getting the equalizer.  Adam Jones would score his fifth of the night, 3:51 into overtime to give the Rock the win.

When Philly went on a 5-0 run late in the third and the front half of the fourth quarter, their 9-7 lead has me thinking upset.  Philly had its transition game going well. Despite the loss, this game has to be a positive sign for Philly. Doug Buchan had a very strong game stopping 51 of 62 and is slowly establishing himself as the number one goaltender for the Wings.  This is a game the expansion Wings can build off of and move forward into their next contest. Their first win shouldn’t be far away.

As for the Rock, their entire offensive output came from just three players, Jones with five goals, Schreiber with five and one from Brandon Slade.  But, even more impressive for Adam Jones was his 13 loose balls on the night, giving his team plenty of second chances. Now, loose balls are sometimes scored differently at different arenas, but the final tally in this game was 99-70 for Toronto.  Another crazy stat, the teams were a combined 1-for-9 on the powerplay. Toronto scored more goals short-handed than both teams combined on the powerplay.

Lyle Thompson Does It Again

Lyle Thompson didn’t score the game winner this time, that was scored by Brendan Bomberry halfway through the 4th quarter, but Lyle Thompson scored the dagger late in the game off of a twister short-side off a fast break to give the Swarm a 10-8 win on Saturday.  It was quite the beauty to watch.

Heading into the fourth quarter, the Warriors had a 8-7 lead and thoughts of a possible upset were flying.  The Warriors were having luck off of transition. But, the Warriors would be held off the scoreboard by a good Georgia defense in the final 16 minutes.  Vancouver’s offense didn’t come from the suspected targets, Logan Schuss and Mitch Jones, who had a combined four points in the game, Instead the offense came from Keegan Bal and Jordan McBride who each had a hat trick.  But, the lack of offense, including a low 40 shots on goal, simply wasn’t enough from the Warriors. Numbers like that won’t normally win you the game (although Calgary did manage to win this week with just 39 shots).

Georgia, in my opinion, played down to the level of their opponent on offense.  We have seen this a few times already, including a week ago with the Rush playing down to New England’s level.  Ed Comeau was mic’d up for the game and one thing that was heard during the start of the fourth quarter was that the offense wasn’t having fun.  He was exactly correct. Georgia relies on a freestyle, free flowing type of offense, and it wasn’t flowing. I wouldn’t be too worried for the Swarm.  A bad game happened at an opportunistic time and they still managed to get the win. At 3-0, the Swarm are the only remaining undefeated team in the NLL.  For the Warriors, this was a big opportunity missed. They need to get wins whenever they can in what realistically will be a fight to get the fourth and final playoff spot in the West.

Records Set in Buffalo

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Buffalo Bandits vs Toronto Rock at KeyBank Center, December 21, 2018. Photo by Sara Schmidle

A few records were set on Saturday as the Bandits manhandled the Knighthawks 13-4.  The first record was a foregone conclusion. Matt Vinc needed just five saves to break Anthony Cosmo’s all-time NLL save record.  But Vinc didn’t just get 5, he got 55 saves, and in the process, a Bandits team record for fewest goals allowed in a game was tied.  Vinc’s save percentage of 0.932 is off the charts. Clearly he was dialed in to beat his former team, and it doesn’t hurt that he would know exactly what almost everyone’s shooting tendencies were.

Vinc’s save percentage and four goals allowed night doesn’t happen without a great defensive performance as well.  Buffalo did an amazing job of keeping Rochester to the outside and forcing low percentage shots. On the Lacrosse Classified podcast, Cody Jamieson admitted that they were forcing themselves too much to try to get one up on Vino.

But, in what was a defensive battle early, with the Bandits leading 4-2 late in the second quarter, it was something little that changed the game over the course of 25 seconds between the end of the second and early in the third quarters.  An ill-advised possession by the K-Hawks led to a shot, a loose ball that ends up with Steve Priolo running the length of the floor and scoring on the breakaway with five seconds to go in the half. Then with Rochester needing some momentum after the half, Thomas Hoggarth continued his impressive play with a goal just six seconds into the second half and the game was effectively over at that stage.

This could simply be an off night for Rochester combined with an amazing performance by Vinc so I wouldn’t read too much into this game.  Rochester outshot Buffalo 59-45, but went just 1-for-8 on the powerplay. These are issues I would expect them to work out.

NLL Championship Banner Raising Night in Saskatchewan

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Photo: Terry Jensen/NLL.com

The championship banner finally went up in the rafters in front of 13,700 fans on Saturday as the Rush beat the Seals 16-12.  I was relieved with the attendance, as in the days leading up to the game, there were a number of unsold seats, but the sales in the final days nearly packed the arena.  As I told the story last week, every member of the Rush’s championship team was in the arena to receive their championship rings as the five players no longer with the team, and all with the Seals (Sorichetti, Dawson, Carlson, Reinholdt and Pearson) received their rings from Derek Keenan pre-game.

The length of the pre-game proceedings are always likely to throw players off their game, and it did for the Rush.  The opening half was a constant trip to the penalty box for them, but the Rush still came out with a 10-8 lead. Surprisingly neither coach saw it fit to replace their starting goaltender, even for a minute, given the scoreline.  Perhaps this was a little unfortunate as the home crowd would have loved to see Hot Carl get a few minutes in the cage.

My favorite part of this game, as I made it known on Twitter, was watching a one-on-one battle between Kyle Rubisch and Austin Staats.  Now, Staats’ stats line would tell you he had an amazing game, and he did, four goals and two assists, but he didn’t get the best of Rubisch.  Almost all of his offensive output came on the man up when Rubisch couldn’t lock him down, and Staats’ only goal in 5-on-5 was on a play with Rubisch not on the floor.  It was an absolute treat though to watch these two go at it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more teams that have a defender with the likes of Rubisch to attempt the same strategy with Staats, simply lock him and try to stay out of the box.  However, we have to admire Staats’ dunk goal over the top of Evan Kirk, as it’s a beauty and was underappreciated during the broadcast.

For the Rush, Ben McIntosh had nine points, including five goals, and a sixth where the socks started flying, only for the goal to be challenged and eventually reversed.  As for Evan Kirk, he didn’t have the greatest night, 37 for 49, 0.755, but what was important with his performance was that he came up with a bunch of momentum changing saves.

I was also surprised that the San Diego defense settled back, instead of trying to pressure the Rush early in the shot clock and trying to force more errors that New England did so well the week before.  Sitting back simply allowed the Rush to pick the Seals apart.

In Rhys We Trust

Calgary continues to surprise me with an 11-8 win over Colorado on Sunday afternoon.  Of course they continue to be without Wes Berg and Curtis Dickson in a contract dispute, Jesse King who is injured and in this game without Tyler Pace.  Pace was listed as being on the IR, although other media members have earlier stated that Pace is having immigration issues. With that much firepower out of the lineup, it would have been understandable for Calgary to have lost this game.  Calgary, as I stated earlier, also only had 39 shots on goal, so you would expect them to lose this game, so a win was a big surprise to me.

There isn’t one simple answer as to how Calgary pulled this win out, but a combination of factors.  First off, the Calgary transition game was going their way in this game. Secondly, Christian Del Bianco was dialled in hard, as he went 41-for-49 (0.837), including one heck of a save in the opening quarter on a Mammoth powerplay that got Teddy Jenner his first “Oh My Goodness” of the season.

But, also key is the continued amazing play of Rhys Duch.  I feel bad for Warriors fans that saw Duch released for nothing, after being protected in the expansion draft, but Duch’s success is one of my favorite things to follow this year.  In this game he had another four goals and two assists. Ryan Martel had another highlight reel goal which drew another ‘Oh My Goodness’ from Teddy Jenner.

Colorado has now had two disappointing performances in their opening two games.  This time around, it was their offense who weren’t getting much going. The transition opportunities that they were giving up were killing them.  Once again, Dillon Ward didn’t have his greatest game, but not entirely his fault either. This Mammoth team is loaded with talent, but appears to still be getting used to the systems of two new assistant coaches.  The defensive issues that were the problem in the opening game went away. I still have a lot of faith in the Mammoth long term, they just need to get things together. However, this weekend they face a strong Rock team, and another loss would drop them to 0-3, and put them in an ugly hole to start the year.  With four teams in the west making the playoffs, it’s not a must win, but it’s a momentum changing win if they can pull it off.

Officiating

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Photo: Terry Jensen/NLL

It wouldn’t be an NLL season without some fans complaining about the officials, and perhaps I’m a little harder on the officials that come to Saskatchewan because live, I can see a lot more things that the cameras don’t necessarily pick up.  I definitely wasn’t happy with the performance of the officials in the game Saturday night. Rather than ripping them apart as I might have in the past, what was apparent to me at the end of the night was that the crew wasn’t on the same page when it came to penalty selection.

This year, the NLL didn’t change any rules, but they put forward points of emphasis to crack down on, including off-ball slashes, off-ball cross checks and diving/embellishment.  So far we have seen a big increase in the number of calls on all three, and I couldn’t be happier, especially with the diving. I haven’t officiated much lacrosse in my life, but I have officiated a lot of hockey and ball hockey at an elite level, including in Europe.  If there’s anything that irks me more in sports, its diving. And I hope we start to see a lot more straight dive calls to get it out of the game. I’m not going to even address the diving calls that were made on Saturday night in Saskatoon as I’m 150 feet away from the incident, and I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the official standing nearby the point of contact as to whether or not a dive occurred.

My concern on Saturday was penalty selection and player safety.  What I saw would be far more difficult to see in a game on B/R, but in the game Saturday night, there was a lot of chippy play going on, some of it behind the play, and very little of the cheap shots being called.  Staats got away with a few big chops. Rubisch was perhaps lucky not to have received a double minor when he took Staats to the ground. But early in the game when cheap shots are happening and in my mind, hard illegal picks are not being called, to start calling minor infractions isn’t good penalty selection.  The most obvious incidents happened with 30 seconds to go in the game and the Rush up five. With Brodie Merrill and Nik Bilic battling it out and heading to the bench, Merrill gave Bilic a hard cross check to the back of the head. Rather than calling a penalty, the official simply told him to get off the floor.  This part I get. There’s only 30 seconds left and if you’re not going to call a major, there’s little point in making the call, as you simply want the clock to run. But then seconds after that, Hossack is called for a hold.

In a game where the result is known, my standard has always been simple, call everything that is obvious (most everyone in the arena saw it happen), dangerous and stupid.  What would be a holding penalty in a close game isn’t what a holding penalty will be late in a game that has already been decided. Based on that standard alone, to me, the cross check is far more important to call from both a player safety standard and to help ensure that something worse doesn’t happen, than a hold.

Needless to say, when the league has gone to lengths to ensure that player safety is paramount, to see the chippy plays not being called, was disappointing.

Crowley Traded to Philly

With Kevin Crowley still in a contract dispute, the Black Wolves finally traded him to Philly in exchange for first round draft picks in 2019 and 2022.  It’s a trade in my mind that works well for both teams.

For New England, the trade makes perfect sense.  They were unlikely to reach a deal with Crowley anytime soon and they were starved for draft picks.  They might receive a compensatory first-round pick in 2019 for the loss of Aaron Bold, but their 2019 first-rounder was traded to Calgary as a part of the Shawn Evans deal.  Their 2020 first-rounder was traded to Georgia at the 2017 draft to pick Colton Watkinson at that draft. Their 2021 first- round pick was traded to Buffalo for Alex Buque. Getting a pair of first rounders will help New England rebuild a quickly aging roster in the future.

As for Philly, they get a player that already lives in the city and someone that can contribute immediately.  Perhaps the trade was accelerated by the fact that Brett Hickey was seen on crutches after their game on Friday in Toronto.  The key for Philly to make this trade worthwhile is to get Crowley signed to a long term deal. Perhaps the Wings are better situated to afford Crowley’s contract demands, or, negotiating a lower rate because Crowley gets to play at home.

Picks

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Calgary Roughnecks at Colorado Mammoth 01.06.19
Jack Dempsey
01/06/2019
National Lacrosse League

I went a disappointing 3-2 last week.  I say disappointing as there weren’t enough upsets to justify the record.  Unfortunately for me, Jake Elliott went 5-0 and has a one game lead on our podcast pick‘em.  I’m now 10-6 on the year. This week another 5 games, four of them happening at the same time which should be addressed, but in any event, here’s what I have:

Georgia over Philly – Philly might have Kevin Crowley in the line-up, but in my mind, it won’t be enough to overcome a Georgia team who in my opinion is the best in the league at the moment.

Toronto over Colorado – I bounced back and forth so many times on this one, I considered flipping a coin.  Colorado needs a win and I think they’ll come out hungry for one. But at the moment I simply like how Toronto is playing more.  It’s a tough one but I’ll take the Rock.

Calgary over New England – You can expect that Dickson, Berg and King will still be out of the lineup, but I’ll still take Calgary.  Del Bianco is dialled in and will once again be the difference.

Saskatchewan over Vancouver – This is probably the easiest pick of the week.  Vancouver plays badly at home. Saskatchewan is a far better team.  And the Rush come to play a little harder in Vancouver because of the family many of the Rush players are playing in front of.  

San Diego over Rochester – San Diego isn’t your typical expansion team, and will be playing especially hard to get that first home win, which is critical to getting first time fans back.  I would expect that Rochester will use Hossack to lock Staats just like Rubisch did, but the long travel for the K-Hawks and a rowdy crowd will perhaps be the difference.  Not an easy pick at all though.

How Long Will It Take?

I was extremely pleased that Wes Berg took the time to come onto the Lacrosse Classified podcast this week to speak about his contract dispute.  Clearly he couldn’t get into specifics, but two key things came from the interview for me, one good and one bad.

The good part, Berg and Dickson want long term deals.  People might wonder why Dickson isn’t signed when he’s a franchise player and his salary is set in stone.  A franchise player though only receives the increased salary typically for one year. Dickson is looking for something long term.  It should be comforting to Roughneck fans that not only do these guys want to be a part of the organization for a long time, and, so far no word of a trade has occurred.

But the bad part of the interview, Berg repeated a few times that they weren’t going to be intimidated by a “take it or leave it” offer.  This has to be concerning. I don’t want to read too much into his words, but my immediate reaction is that Calgary hasn’t come off its initial offer and this dispute could last a long time.

People, including myself at times, have pondered whether each Calgary result would mean that one side or the other would crack.  I don’t think Calgary’s win this week changes anything. The Roughnecks only had 39 shots on goal, and while they got the win this time, 90 percent or more of the time (Graeme Perrow can probably tell us for sure), if you have less than 40 shots on goal, you will lose.  Long term Calgary needs these weapons, especially if Jesse King is out for an extended period of time.

Let’s hope this gets resolved soon.  Dickson and Berg are two talents too good to not be playing.  Yes, them not playing is an advantage when you are a fan of the Rush, but if you are a lacrosse fan first, you know you want to see these talents on the floor for everyone to enjoy and help grow the game.

Until next time…

For all the latest on the NLL, follow me @SchemLax and look out for the Lacrosse Classified podcast every week with myself and Jake Elliott (@pxp4sports) by following @laxclass.

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