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Random Thoughts: Offensive Issues, East Tiebreakers, No Canada Buffalo Bandits vs New England Black Wolves. KeyBank Center, Buffalo, NY. March 31, 2018. Photo by Bill Wippert
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Random Thoughts: Offensive Issues, East Tiebreakers, No Canada

Another week in the NLL where almost everything is settled in the West and nothing is settled in the East.

With Calgary’s win on Saturday night over Vancouver, we know the three teams that will play in the West playoffs with Saskatchewan, Colorado and Calgary all clinching spots.

In the East, nobody has clinched, and nobody can clinch for another two weeks, and even that is tricky. If Georgia wins two straight games and Toronto and New England lose two straight games, Georgia clinches a playoff spot. That means the results of five games have to go perfectly (Toronto and Georgia play one another next week) for that to happen. Otherwise, nobody can clinch a playoff spot until at least the second to last weekend of the season. But at least the East went from everyone one game apart in the standings to everyone within 1.5 games.

I’ll get into the tiebreak scenarios later, which are very muddy. But needless to say, the old saying of every game is critical couldn’t ring truer this season.

Zero Offense

After Friday’s game in Toronto, I put the challenge out there to see if anyone had the data to prove whether or not a team had gone an entire game without a forward scoring a single goal. Nobody has provided an answer at the time of publication, so the challenge is still out there, but it appears safe to say that Colorado achieved a league first by holding every Toronto forward without a single goal all night in an 11-7 win. If it wasn’t for the Toronto transition team, this game could have been very ugly. In fact it was shocking that the game was tied at the end of the 3rd quarter.

But you really had to tip your hat to the Mammoth defense that night as they left it all out there and kept Toronto to mostly low percentage shots. Toronto didn’t have that many turnovers, just 15 all game. But 12 of those were caused turnovers. Colorado held Toronto to just 42 shots on goal and when they needed him, Dillon Ward stood firm. The Rock were going for the 5-hole most of the night, a weakness the Rush had exposed earlier this year. The difference in the approach between the Rush and Rock though was simple. The reason the Rush exposed that hole was they had Ward moving east-west and were firing while he was on the move. In Toronto, he was in position by the time most of those shots came off.

TORONTO, ON - MAR 30, 2018: National Lacrosse League game between the Toronto Rock and the Colorado Mammoth, (Photo by Ryan McCullough / NLL)
Photo: Ryan McCullough / NLL

The stats don’t lie in this game. Adam Jones, Rob Hellyer, Brett Hickey, Dan Taylor and Phil Caputo all held without a single point all night. Nick Rose, the Rock goaltender, had more points than these five forwards combined. The only points the offense had were from Kieran McArdle and Reid Reinholdt who had assists on a Challen Rogers goal where Rogers stayed out for an offensive shift, the only non-transition goal the Rock scored all night. In fact, the first four Rock goals that night were all unassisted. Challen Rogers and Latrell Harris with two goals each had as many points as individuals as the entire Rock offense combined. That’s how good the Mammoth defense and goaltending were all night. Also, key to the Mammoth success was that they stayed out of the penalty box, with just one minor the whole night. This is something that evaded them Saturday night.

Barnburner in Rochester

Given the result on Friday night in Toronto with the performance of the Colorado defense and goaltending, and just how good the Rochester defense has been this year, I was expecting an 8-7 final in the game Saturday night. But what we would see shocked myself and many lacrosse fans. That 15th combined goal of the game would come just 6:26 into the 2nd quarter.

The first half would produce 21 goals on its own, with Rochester eventually pulling this game out 16-14. In both games this weekend, the magic number that Adam Levi figured out, 12, held true. In all but one game this year, if the Mammoth allowed 12 or fewer goals, they have won all nine games. If they allow more than 12 goals, they are now 1-5.

I doubt there was anyone at the arena who could have possibly guessed pre-game that to start the second half, the goaltenders would be Angus Goodleaf and Steve Fryer, but that’s exactly what happened. Goodleaf was called into action just 4:30 into the 2nd quarter after Matt Vinc had allowed 8 goals and the Knighthawks were down 8-4. Colorado soon afterward would go up 10-5 and when I heard the score from my son, I started to wonder whether this Colorado team was going to give the Rush a serious run for their money.

Photo By: Micheline V/ Rochester Knighthawks NLL COlorado Mammoth 2018 Random Thoughts East
Photo: Micheline V/ Rochester Knighthawks

But on this night, Colorado was playing its second game in two nights, and you expect that at some point, the team is going to run out of gas. That happened half way through the second quarter. Soon the Mammoth defense wasn’t all over players like they were accustomed to. Rochester was finding space, getting the picks, and scored five times in just under 6 minutes, to chase Dillon Ward from the game. Oddly enough, not a single one of those five goals came from the man-up.

Colorado would get one back late in the first half to take an 11-10 lead into the half. The second half was a game of runs, with Rochester getting three early goals, and having a fourth disallowed on a challenge. The challenge seemed to spark Colorado who went on a three goal run of their own only for Rochester to go on another three goal run to close things out.

The ability for the Mammoth to stay out of the box on Friday night eluded them on Saturday as they gave up five power-play chances, with Robert Hope uncharacteristically taking three of those minors, and Rochester pounded them for four power-play goals. The Mammoth power-play was also on fire going 5 for 6, plus another on a delayed penalty.

Photo By: Micheline V/ Rochester Knighthawks NLL Stpehen Keogh COlorado Mammoth 2018 Random Thoughts East
Photo: Micheline V/ Rochester Knighthawks

One of the stories of the night was still Stephen Keogh who was the first player this season to have seven goals in one game, including one goal between his legs. But most of Keogh’s goals came from distance and he was hitting with pinpoint accuracy all night long. To think that Keogh was a healthy scratch the first three games of the season for the Mammoth. He clearly won’t be a healthy scratch anytime again this season with how good his play has been.

The other story of the night was the unbelievable play of Jake Withers at the faceoff dot. Withers won 25 of 32 faceoffs on the night. That is truly a difference maker when you give your team an extra 18 possessions in the game, especially in a game that tight. The week before the Rush exposed a weakness in not trying to win draws against Withers outright. You didn’t see this strategy employed by Colorado on him. Withers now leads the league with a 65.6% faceoff win percentage. The closest to him is Tyler Burton with 56.3% (minimum 100 faceoffs taken). To put that in perspective, Burton would have to win his next 91 consecutive faceoffs just to catch Withers. That is pure dominance from the rookie.

Black Wolves Lose… Again

Three weeks ago, the Black Wolves were on top of the East Division at 6-4 and appeared to be in the driver’s seat to win the division. Fast forward three weeks, four consecutive losses, an offense in disarray with the exception of Kevin Crowley, a full game out of a playoff position, and a slough of tiebreak scenarios that don’t benefit them any longer.

The Black Wolves have had difficulties with allowing massive runs to their opponents in these four games, and Saturday night was no exception. Buffalo would jump out to a quick 5-0 lead in this game headed for a 14-11 win. But oddly enough, after having dinner with the family and getting back downstairs to watch the game, only to see the score tied just before half time was a shock. Josh Byrne would score the second of his four goals just before the half was over. Once again, the Black Wolves offense would go cold for 22 minutes, another common theme in their losing streak. But Aaron Bold would come up with 15 saves in the 3rd quarter to keep the game close and allow the Black Wolves to pull even early in the fourth quarter. The game then turned back and forth trading goals, but with Buffalo going on the final mini-run that ultimately made the difference.

Buffalo Bandits vs New England Black Wolves. KeyBank Center, Buffalo, NY. March 31, 2018. Photo by Bill Wippert
Photo: Bill Wippert

The reality for the Black Wolves is since they traded Shawn Evans away, they are 1-4, and in that one win, Aaron Bold stood on his head as they beat the Rock 8-7. The offense, which was centered around Evans, lost its pilot. Yes Kevin Crowley has scored a fair amount after Evans’ departure, but it’s not the same. Crowley is relied upon so hard to score, you should know at this stage he is bound to shoot when he has the ball. He had 5 goals and no assists in this game, prompting a joke of a tweet from Curtis Dickson that assists are for losers. Crowley leads the league with 41 goals, but is nowhere to be found in the scoring lead race, which lists the top 17 in points.

Given that the Black Wolves have tiebreak problems against several teams, they need to treat every game as a playoff game from here on out. I’m also concerned about their future. Aaron Bold, Kevin Crowley, both Buchanan’s, Jay Thorimbert and Callum Crawford are all unrestricted free agents this offseason. They also don’t have a draft pick until the third round this year, and that at best will be the 28th overall pick. They don’t have a first round draft pick in the 2019 draft or the 2020 draft. Their location will make it difficult to attract free agents. Rich Lisk has a difficult task ahead of him.

Stealth Officially Eliminated

They didn’t go down without a fight, but the Stealth were officially eliminated from the playoffs with a 13-9 loss to the Roughnecks at home. I’m not certain why this is the case, but the last several years the Stealth have not played well at home. Both of their wins so far this year have come on the road. Perhaps the lack of distractions on the road allows them to concentrate on the task at hand better.

Vancouver Stealth NLL 2018 Chris O'Dougherty

The Stealth held the lead several times in the first half and in fact took a 7-6 lead into the half. In the second half, the Roughnecks took advantage of a worn down Stealth defense. The blame here can’t go to Eric Penney who faced 68 shots on the night and had a save percentage of 0.824. But when it came down to the end, the Stealth couldn’t score in the fourth quarter and also went 0 for 4 on the power-play. On the Calgary side of things, Curtis Dickson led the way with an 8 point night.

How both of these teams approach the end of the season will be interesting. Whether the Stealth will use these games to try more players out for next season, or whether Jamie Batley goes all out trying to win games in an attempt to save his job, anything is possible. As for Calgary, don’t be surprised to see Frankie Scigliano get a game or two in the pipes to save Christian Del Bianco for the playoffs. I won’t be surprised to see players that are banged up take some time off to heal. Calgary can’t move up or down in the standings, so preparation for the playoffs is of the utmost importance.

The Math in the West

Unfortunately for the Mammoth, the loss means that their odds of winning the West has declined significantly. The magic number for the Rush to win the division is two. If the Rush win next weekend, they win the West and also guarantee themselves the best record in the league for home floor advantage in the final. For the Mammoth to pass the Rush, the Mammoth would have to win out and hope the Rush lose three of their last four as they don’t have the tie-break on the Rush.

Calgary has now clinched a playoff spot but is also guaranteed to be the #3 seed in the West. The Colorado win on Friday night guaranteed the Mammoth a home playoff game.

The Vancouver loss guaranteed that they’ll both miss the playoffs and be in last place in the league at season’s end. As such, the Buffalo Bandits hold the #3 pick in the draft as they hold the rights to Vancouver’s first rounder.

East Tiebreakers

The system of tiebreakers in the East Division is a complicated mess. And let’s hope we don’t get to a three way tie, which makes the mess even more complicated. But for now, let’s have a look at the tiebreakers if two teams are tied. Keep in mind, some of these have already been settled, and others won’t be settled until future games take place.

Those that are set in stone are:

  • Buffalo has the tiebreak on New England
  • Georgia has the tiebreak on Toronto
  • Toronto has the tiebreak on both New England and Rochester
  • Rochester has the tiebreak on Georgia
  • New England has the tiebreak on Rochester

Those figures aren’t good for New England and Rochester already as two teams have already secured the tiebreak on them. Buffalo has perhaps the best position as nobody has yet secured the tiebreak on them. For the four undecided scenarios, here is what is in place:

  • Buffalo and Georgia split their season series at 1-1. This now comes down to best division winning percentage. Currently, Buffalo is 6-4 with two division games remaining. Georgia is 5-4 with two division games remaining.
  • Buffalo and Toronto are 1-1 against each other head to head. They have one more game against each other on April 21 that will decide the tiebreak if required.
  • The winner of the Buffalo vs Rochester game in the final week of the season would determine who has the tiebreak between the two. Rochester leads the head to head record 2-1 with one game remaining. If Buffalo wins in the final week of the season to even that up, Rochester is currently 4-6 against the East. By losing this game Rochester can’t catch Buffalo in the division record chase and Buffalo would have the tiebreak.
  • New England and Georgia are 1-1 head to head and play in the final week of the season which would determine the tiebreak if necessary.

Bleacher Report

The NLL announced on Tuesday that it had struck a deal with Bleacher Report to broadcast games starting in the 2018-19 season. The handling of the news release was quite poor and left more questions than answers. Luckily Nick Sakiewicz was on Off The Crosse Bar later that night to give more details.

The one thing that is encouraging is that a seven figure investment is being made by the teams into upgraded equipment. The hope is that the game feed issues which plagued NLLTV disappear with the new investment. The investment will be recovered by the league receiving a portion of the revenues of the service.

There are still a number of question marks which the new partnership does have time to figure out. The one thing I hope is that regardless if NLLTV is around in some form or not, that Tyson Geick is still somehow involved. It would be a shame to see him disappear from the media strategy of the league as he has been a welcome highlight of the strategy for the past two years.

It’s also very clear that as much as we all want to see lacrosse on TV, the league is all the more committed to its digital first strategy for broadcasting games. Whether it pans out, only time will tell. Given the level of investment in the strategy by the league, I’m certainly willing to give it a chance.

Attendance Update

The Good Friday and Easter weekend is always a tough weekend to gauge on attendance because you could see a dip in attendance due to people having holiday plans, or you could see an upswing in attendance because people have time off to enjoy a game. For the most part, every game had an average attendance for those teams. Toronto had 10,288. Buffalo was slightly above average with 13,709 in attendance. Rochester had to be disappointed with 6,228 given the big win against the Rush last weekend.

As for Vancouver, my son gave me a good laugh when we were watching the game. He asked me, “Daddy, why are so many fans dressed in blue?” For a game against a division rival that was win or die, there were only 3,363 at the LEC on Saturday night. With the Stealth out of the playoffs, it will be interesting to see what the crowds are like for their two remaining home games against the Rush and Roughnecks.

Weekly Picks

A perfect record for me last weekend, 4-0, to raise my record to 40-25. Just three games this coming weekend.

Saskatchewan over Colorado – the battle for first place in the West. It’s not ideal for the Rush to be coming into this game after a bye week, but the simple rule of not picking against the Rush without a clear and obvious rule applies.

New England over Calgary – New England hasn’t looked good the last several weeks so this pick might surprise some people. But here’s the key. New England has everything to play for. A loss might put them painfully close to ending their season. But Calgary is stuck in a spot where they can’t change their position the rest of the way as well as facing the ugly travel schedule to New England for the players living out west. For those reasons, I’ll take the Black Wolves.

Georgia over Toronto – yes the Rock get Tom Schreiber back. But whether he will be 100% is doubtful and whether he will be the pre-injury Tom Schreiber is questionable. The Swarm are simply the better team of the two at the moment.

No Canada?

A report came out late Monday night from Inside Lacrosse stating that none of the 34 players Canada short-listed for the upcoming world championships have signed their player’s contracts or dealt with any of the forms for equipment or WADA testing.

The players are sticking to their guns that the prior management be reinstated to their positions, that player insurance be put in place for Team Canada practices and games to deal with lost wages in the event of injury, and that the Canadian Lacrosse Association takes the steps to regain its charitable status. The charitable status is necessary for sponsors to obtain tax credits for donations. But gaining this back means that any member of the board of directors that was in place in 2012 must step down, and this is where the point of contention is.

Canada lacrosse roster vs United States 2014 World Lacrosse Championship Gold Medal Game

It’s sad that the old boys’ club is so intent on holding down the fort that it could cost Canada a shot at the world title. The CLA could potentially send a replacement team, but I would assume that most of the next 34 players wouldn’t be willing to cross the line. A replacement team would have little chance of beating the USA in the final, if they made the final at all, given the increasing strength of the Iroquois Nationals.

It appears that the sides have gone nowhere since last October and November when this made headlines. Given how far apart the two sides are, it won’t be easy to find a solution.

The Week Ahead…

The week ahead is going to be an enjoyable one. Vasyli has a four day lacrosse camp coming up. My good friend Gary Groob is making his annual pilgrimage to the SaskTel Centre for the Rush/Mammoth game, this time with the entire family coming along. Gary thought he might bring his ear plugs this time around but he shouldn’t. The ringing in the ears for the next three days is all a part of the experience of going to a Rush game. And always a treat, Joyce Souka, aka Grandma Rush, is making her way to Saskatoon as well. It’s a big game and everyone (well except for one part time fan who shall remain nameless…) is going to be there.

I’m looking forward to a great game with great people.

Until next time…

For all the latest, be sure to follow me on Twitter @evanschemenauer.