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Random Thoughts: Team Canada, CDB on Fire, Come Play in Bermuda

Team Canada has a narrowed roster for the 2018 World Games, there’s opportunity to play in Bermuda, Bandits take the sweep, Rush stay hot, and Christian Del Bianco is proving his weight in gold.

It was quite the busy weekend in the NLL. Six games on the slate, and one lonely partner of mine on Saturday night. The man cave was busy with all kinds of action.

The game in Buffalo was being streamed on my phone. The games in Calgary and Rochester were on two laptops. Snowboarding was on the television until the Rush game started. And yes, my partner is not a sports fan, except for watching lacrosse live in person. So thank you, Tracy, for putting up with me on Saturday night.

It was also a weekend my picks went back to the way they were last year. The team I picked to lose both ends of their double header weekend, Buffalo, won twice. The team I picked to win twice in Georgia lost both games. It’s a crazy league at the best of times.

So now the team I picked to finish last in the East is leading the pack and the team I picked to finish second is currently out of the playoffs. But my pick for Calgary to finish second in the west has some life to it. And for fans in Vancouver, well, let’s get to that in a bit.

Team Canada Roster

On February 8, the Canadian Lacrosse Association released a list of 34 players still in contention to make the national team. Now of course the dispute between the CLA, the players and the coaches still needs to be resolved before this happens, but assuming that an agreement is worked out, the list of players is quite astounding.

The one name that really popped out at me was Geoff Snider, who retired a few years ago from professional lacrosse. If you wonder why he’s still on the list, it’s the fact that he’s such an effective FOGO, especially with all of the space you have in field lacrosse, that if all he does is takes face-offs, his inclusion is well worth it. You have to keep in mind, in the FIL game, there is no shot clock, so winning face-offs is so critical.

Canada vs United States 2014 World Lacrosse Championship Gold Medal Game

But just looking at the names on this list, you would think that Team Canada might be a slight favorite going into the tournament. One thing to look at with the list is that every player except two, played NCAA lacrosse. That is critical and an important step that Canada took in selecting the 2014 squad. Many years ago, Canada would select the best players, but several of them would have little to no field experience and the results showed. Taking experienced field players leveled the playing field with the Americans.

Here’s just a sample of the names that are on the list: Tyson Bell, Wes Berg, Josh Byrne (MLL rookie of the year), Kevin Crowley, Zach Currier (fresh off an amazing career at Princeton), Curtis Dickson, Zack Greer (at one time the career NCAA points leader), Matt and Graeme Hossack, Jesse King, Jordan MacIntosh, Mark Matthews, Ben McIntosh, Brodie Merrill (in my opinion, greatest long pole of all time), Jason and Jeremy Noble, Matt Vinc, Dillon Ward and Jake Withers.

When this list was released, it received more attention in the US than it did in Canada, and the reaction was priceless. Several Americans commented as to how Canada was now the favorite or were crowning them champs already. That might be a stretch, but it goes to show just how far along the Canadian program has come along. When I joined the ranks of international lacrosse, it was almost assumed the Americans would win the title, and why not, they hadn’t lost a game in 28 years. Now Canada has won 2 of the last 3 titles, and with a team like this, they have positioned themselves to make that 3 out of 4.

Rush Dominate in Vancouver

Vancouver Stealth Saskatchewan Rush NLL 2018

In what is really a home game for half of the Rush squad, the Rush blew away the Stealth, 16-9, on Saturday night. The final score is actually flattering to the Stealth as the Rush chased Eric Penney after 5 goals in 8:32 of action. It was 6-0 Rush after the first quarter and extended that to an 11-3 lead at the half. Considering it was Curtis Hodgson jersey retirement night in Vancouver, you would have expected a spirited effort. But the Rush forwards were left open time and time again and for the first time this season, Penney was exposed. With 5 goals in the opening 9 minutes, you suddenly had the feeling that the Rush could be duplicating what the Rock had accomplished in Vancouver last month.

Brodie MacDonald came in relief and you could tell the Rush had him scouted too with every shot going high (the book on MacDonald is he goes down far too quickly). On this night, MacDonald would stand tall, but it didn’t stop the Rush from scoring at will. The Vancouver defense, simply put, was a complete mess. Somebody was wide open on a cut on the majority of possessions in the first half for the Rush.

On the other side of the floor, the Rush defense got back to doing what they do best, pressuring the ball and creating turnovers. But in this game they took it to an extreme I haven’t seen before. The pressure was coming from all the way out to the restraining line, and sometimes past it. Both Rhys Duch and Corey Small were scoreless in this game and they really didn’t have much of a chance to fire all game. In the two game series against the Rush, the two of them combined for just one goal. Six of the seven Rush forwards beat that total in the two games. The caused turnover total for the Rush was only 10, but it’s a number that seems to be off as the Stealth were constantly being stripped of the ball all night long.

The play of the Stealth in the opening half along with the out of town scoreboard showing a Roughnecks’ win in Calgary finally made the broadcast team crack, correctly stating that the fans, 4,113 that came out (one of the biggest attendances in Vancouver this season) deserved so much better. And they are correct on this. For the Stealth fans out there, I’m not sure what I can tell you at this stage to cheer you up. The only hope for the Stealth now is to win next weekend in Calgary.

With another loss, the Stealth will be three games out of the playoffs and in trouble with the tiebreak. And there isn’t a simple fix to the problem in Vancouver. The team has five players that are free agents this offseason, Smith, O’Dougherty, Harnett, McFetridge and Hawksbee. Duch and Small are potential free agents at the end of 2019. If there was a trade to be had, teams out west don’t have a major hole to fill to need Duch and Small at the moment. Schuss is already having work scheduling issues making Friday games on the road. If he was traded, this only gets worse.

Vancouver Stealth Saskatchewan Rush NLL 2018

While the Stealth won’t lose much in the expansion draft with all of their free agents, the problem they have is that they don’t have a 1st or 2nd round draft pick this year (owned by the Bandits and Rush) or a 1st round draft pick next year (owned by the Rush) to attempt to restock the lineup. Their main hope, and its not a good one, is for there to be west coast free agents who decide they want to play closer to home.

That’s not much to go on.

As for the Rush, they now have a three game lead over Colorado for the division lead, and the tie-break which in effect makes that lead four games. They also have a two game lead over Buffalo, but without the tie-break, for the #1 seed in the playoffs.

One crazy thing to look at going forward, The Rush own the Knighthawks and Rock first round picks in 2018 as well as the Stealth’s 2nd round pick. Based on the current standings, keeping in mind that San Diego and Philly will have the #1, #2, #12 and #13 picks, the Rush would currently hold the #4, #9, #11 and #14 picks in next year’s draft. You would expect them to take two of the picks, and trade two away for more future picks.

By the way, I loved listening to Jake Elliott and Brad Challoner reveal their man crushes on Mike Messenger during the broadcast (“look at those calves”). Welcome to the club guys, that includes myself, John Fraser, Casey Guerin and Graeme Perrow amongst others.

Del Bianco on Fire

Steve Govett and Paul Day might as well mark this one down already. One of them is going to select Frankie Scigliano in the NLL expansion draft. It’s not that Scigliano is bad by any means, it’s when you look at the future of the goaltending position in Calgary, it’s Christian Del Bianco’s spot now. He is the future in Calgary. And at the moment, in my opinion, he is the hottest player in the NLL. The stats back me up on this one. He has the lowest GAA in the league amongst goalies that have played at least 120 minutes. His is 9.49. The person closest to him is Evan Kirk at 10.95.

Del Bianco was stymying the Mammoth at will on Saturday night. He still has a weak spot, which can be exploited. He is vulnerable at distance. But in tight, he is so quick that the hole you thought you had, just disappeared. Also, if there’s a goalie I would want carrying the ball up the floor, it’s Del Bianco you would want carrying it. Not only does he have the hands to do that, but he also has the speed to retreat should anything go wrong. On Saturday, he stopped 51 of 60 shots and it wasn’t until the 4th quarter that the Mammoth finally started to get shots past him. He also leads the league in save percentage at 0.807. As much as the Rush are still the elite team in the west, in a one game final, if you have a hot goalie such as Ward or Del Bianco, an upset is possible.

Christian Del Bianco Calgary Roughnecks NLL 2018

The other thing that has gone right for the Roughnecks during this span is that Dane Dobbie has really picked up his play. When the Roughnecks were struggling early on, Dobbie was not finding the back of the net at all. In the last three games, he has 9 goals and 10 assists.

While first place is still a near impossibility for the Roughnecks at this stage, getting second place is now well within reach and that home floor advantage for the west semi-final will be important.

In a number of the reports I have seen people losing faith in the Mammoth, and I wouldn’t be so quick to go there. The Mammoth have lost three games all season, and two of those were to the Rush. Losing one game to Calgary isn’t the end all be all. So don’t lose faith just yet.

Buffalo Shuffle Sweep

Buffalo Bandits New England Blackwolves Photo Jeff Melnik
Photo: Jeff Melnik

I have to admit, I massively underestimated the Buffalo Bandits this season, and it was only fair for the Bandits readers out there to let me have it this past weekend. They deserved it.

I was quite surprised to see Alex Buque in the net Friday night in New England during the 18-13 win over New England. Buque has played quite well at home but terribly on the road. But perhaps the Bandits need to get to the point where they don’t have a game of musical chairs at the goaltending position and need to settle on a full time starter, something they haven’t had since the end of the 2016 season. Buque struggled again, but not enough of a struggle this time to cost the Bandits the game.

This game was very typical of New England’s games this season, a game of massive runs in both directions, and several times in both directions. In the opening 20 minutes of the game, the Bandits were up 7-2, only for New England to go on a 8-1 run the opposite direction and take a 10-8 lead. I thought my pick in this game was right, until the Bandits would score the last five goals of the 3rd quarter and flip the script to a 13-10 lead. New England then went on a 3-1 run to get the game to 14-13 only for Buffalo to score the final four goals of the game. The swings in this game were almost as dramatic as the game against the Stealth.

As much as Aaron Bold was playing with something to prove at the start of the season, this has turned for the worse lately. With this result (17 goals allowed) and the one against Toronto, his GAA has risen to 13.25. The Bandits were exploiting the 5-hole most of the night.

One thing that was talked about a fair amount in this game was that Shawn Evans was no longer the team captain in New England. I don’t want to get into the speculation as to what was happening with this move, but it was a gamble for certain. There are two very different ways a player can react to this. One is that they shut down and their performance drops. The other reaction is they go out and focus on lacrosse, or, play with something to prove. With 5 goals and 7 points, the move appears to have been initially positive for New England.

But even with the big result on Friday night for the Bandits, I wasn’t giving them much of a chance on Saturday. They left the arena in Uncasville late Friday night and endured an 8 hour bus ride back to Buffalo to play a Georgia team well rested and waiting for them. On Saturday night they got a fantastic performance from Zach Higgins who stopped 54 of 63 shots in an 18-9 win over Georgia.

Zach Higgins NLL 2018 Buffalo Bandits
Photo: Bill Wippert

The 9 goals was a repetitive theme as all four teams that lost on Saturday scored nine goals. Higgins has the second best save percentage in the league with 0.791 but because he is facing more shots per game, his GAA is in the middle of the pack.

Davide DiRuscio is due back from injury in the coming weeks and it will be interesting to see what the Bandits do with the goaltending position. I don’t think there is any way that you can demote Higgins at this stage as he is clearly playing the best of the three at the moment. It may mean that when DiRuscio is ready that he is put on the practice roster, or he is simply left on the injured reserve until he is needed. It’s a tough decision for the Bandits to make. Do you start the guy you believe is your long term starter, or do you go with the guy that is hot now, given that you’re in first place? The decision is even more complex given that Buffalo is likely to lose a goalie in the expansion draft.

Buffalo put this game to bed fast with an 11-4 lead at half time. This was a theme for the Swarm this weekend. Mike Poulin was having an off night, allowing 15 of the 18 goals. The Swarm pulled Poulin in favour of Warren Hill at 9-2 in the 2nd quarter, so I was quite surprised to see them go back to Poulin in the second half. Down 8 goals at that stage, I would have opted to let him rest and give him a full 60 minutes the following night. The decision to keep playing him appears to be a small contributing factor to what transpired the following night.

Georgia Swarm Buffalo Bandits NLL 2018 Photo Bill Wippert
Photo: Bill Wippert

As for the Bandits, it was a balanced effort with Byrne, Jones, Crawford and Durston all with 6 or point nights. You know when Dhane Smith is your 5th highest scorer of the night with 4 points, it was a good night.

But the most impressive was Josh Byrne. If anyone was watching the game tape on this game, you’ll learn quickly that you can’t play Byrne isolated. Twice on highlight reel goals, Byrne was isolated with the ball and Georgia had no support down low, only for Byrne to bust it hard to the goal line, completely exposed and score on the crease dive.

With two games going on, I originally thought I was watching a replay when he pulled the move off the second time. I’m quite comfortable still with my prediction of him being the league MVP in 4 to 5 years’ time.

Josh Byrne Buffalo Bandits New England Blackwolves Photo Jeff Melnik
Photo: Jeff Melnik

Georgia in Trouble

At the beginning of the season, some people thought it was a stretch that I would even rank the Swarm second in the East in my pre-season rankings (Toronto in first). Now we are facing the reality that the Swarm are out of a playoff position as of today with a 3-5 record after losing in Buffalo, and shockingly losing to Rochester, 17-10, on Sunday night.

There was nobody that saw the Swarm losing this one. The worst part was that not only did the Swarm lose, they got manhandled at home by a team that had lost six in a row. They allowed what is certainly the worst goal of the year with a hidden ball trick by Kyle Jackson in the 4th quarter. The very odd thing about it is that Jason Noble is isolated with Jackson on the play, yet he doesn’t appear to be calling anything out. A simple “I Got Ball” should have alerted everyone. I’ve seen far better hidden ball tricks in my life. You just don’t see it too often at this level.

As I said earlier it was curious that the Swarm made the decision to put Poulin back in net in the second half in Buffalo. In Georgia, he didn’t have a good night either, allowing 10 goals on 36 shots in 33 minutes of action. How many inside looks the Knighthawks had that night was tremendous. Kyle Jackson had a feast inside with four goals. Cody Jamieson finally got on the scoresheet with four goals of his own. Even more impressive was the fact that Rochester scored 17 times without Dan Dawson in the lineup.

The special teams made quite the difference as well, with the Knighthawks going 4 for 4 on the powerplay (2 of those goals were on the same 5 minute major), while the Swarm didn’t have a single powerplay. That’s impressive for the Knighthawks given the speed that the Swarm has on offense.

The key to this game was a run that started with 5 minutes to go in the opening half and ended 4 minutes into the second half, in which the Knighthawks went on a 7-0 run, going from a 4-3 deficit to a 10-4 lead. After that the lead just kept expanding. While the Swarm showed a bit of life at the end of the 3rd quarter to make it 10-6, Rochester tuned the gas on again and outscored the Swarm 7-2 over the next 11 minutes to put an end to the proceedings. Simple rule, you can never underestimate an opponent.

Georgia Swarm Rochester Knighthawks NLL 2018

Now the Swarm are going to have to dig deep and get their system running again like it did last season. They’re more than capable of coming back and they’re only 1.5 games out of a playoff spot, but at the halfway mark in the season, they can’t wait much longer.

As for Rochester, just when I was about to write them off, they pull off an upset like this, along with a close loss to the Rock (12-9 with two empty netters from the Rock) and all of a sudden they are alive. They are still two games behind the Black Wolves, but there is time to make that up. However, with two teams to get past, Rochester can’t waste any time either.

NLLTV

After last week’s article, there was quite the debate on social media about pronunciations, and in particular, the pronunciation of Saskatchewan. Oddly enough, even the locals couldn’t completely agree on the pronunciation. It also led to discussion about the game in Saskatchewan a week ago and I went back to listen to the first five minutes of game tape. To be honest, if I wasn’t looking for errors, I wouldn’t have even noticed anything. I appreciate all of those who raised the concern to me, but after reviewing it, the error is far too minimal to be concerned about. I would be far more concerned if someone consistently referred to the team as Edmonton.

While a few fans this week did complain about their NLLTV service this weekend, I actually had a good weekend with the service. The quality of the picture in New England remains terrible and I’ve become accustomed to that by now. But on Saturday night, with three feeds and three televisions all working off the same signal, I only had a few buffering problems on my phone. I didn’t watch the games in Calgary or Vancouver on NLLTV however as I watched the Calgary game on Twitter and the game in Vancouver on SaskTel Max. I was about ready to flip when the SaskTel Max broadcast cut to commercial during the Curtis Hodgson jersey retirement ceremony, but they fixed that in about three minutes.

Vancouver Stealth NLL 2018 Curtis Hodgson Retirement

But my number one beef about the service this weekend was the broadcast in Georgia.

Let me start with this, Mitch Belisle has been an absolute treat to listen to this year and the way he can explain the game to the newer fans of the game is tremendous. His awareness of everything going on is amazing. So this issue has nothing to do with Belisle.

It has everything to do with the play by play commentary of Mark Zinno. Zinno seems to have issues with the knowledge of the rules of the game from time to time as he is constantly screwing them up, and poor Mitch is having to correct him far too many times. It’s simple things that are getting at me with his broadcasts. For example, there was a goal on Sunday the Swarm were challenging late in the game. Zinno makes mention that the net comes off its moorings as if to indicate that when the net was dislodged it kills the play like it does in hockey. Newsflash, there are no moorings in lacrosse and if the net is dislodged, it stops nothing. The goalie is required to get the net back into position and until that happens, there is a virtual goal (referee’s discretion as to whether the ball would have gone in if the net was in place). So the fact that the net was dislodged was completely irrelevant and Zinno should have known that.

Another situation occurred where Rochester got possession off a turnover in their own end. The Swarm then caused a loose ball, which Rochester picked up but then threw the ball down the length of the floor. Zinno was completely confused as to why they did this, and poor Mitch had to tell him that it was to avoid an 8 second violation. These weren’t the only two examples of this that game. After enough frustration I tweeted out that somebody needs to send Zinno a rulebook and hit the mute button on the game as I couldn’t take it any longer. As good of a job as Mitch did to recover for his partner time and time again, he shouldn’t have to be doing that.

Attendance Update

Vancouver had a better than average showing with 4,113 at the game Saturday. It’s still below where you would like to see it, but it’s an improvement.

Calgary had 11,167 in their win over Colorado. Slightly under their historical average but not by too much.

The weather played havoc with the attendance in Rochester once again. Officially they had 5,439 in attendance, but the stands looked far emptier than that. I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of ticket holders opted not to go given the weather.

Buffalo had its largest attendance of the year with 14,058 on Friday against the Swarm.

There were 5,357 in New England on Friday night, which is about as many people you can get into that building without selling the obstructed view seats.

The Rush did release that only 1,000 tickets remain for their game on February 24 versus the Roughnecks so time is of the essence if you want to get tickets for that game. Will be good to see a sell-out and get the momentum rising again. And this time the Rush Hulk will be allowed in the building without any problems.

… and then there was Georgia.

Georgia Swarm attendance

Now for those of you who have read the articles for a while, this photo is familiar. It’s a camera perched on the far end of the Infinite Energy Arena that gives you a good view of most of the crowd. It’s a camera that the Swarm should turn off, but according to them, it’s outside of their control on NLLTV. Unlike past home games this season, the Falcons weren’t playing and it wasn’t the holiday season. This is the defending champs playing at home. The official attendance isn’t even worth mentioning because we all know it’s wrong. I was asked about this again by some fans as to where the official attendance number comes from in Georgia, and the only answer I can conceive of is that the Swarm print a number of promotional tickets that either aren’t given away or aren’t used.

The crowd looked eerily similar to the ones I hand counted last year in February and March to determine there were approximately 850 to 900 people in the arena (821 people actually in their seats).

Some people have asked me when I’m going to stop showing this photo and the answer is simple. I’ll stop showing it when either the Swarm consistently get their attendance up, or, the league faces the inevitable and the team moves to a market that supports them. As much as the commissioner wants to keep teams in their current markets in order to make NLL teams more attractive to new major markets, there has to be a threshold at which stage the league admits that it is bad business practice to retain a team in certain markets.

Weekly Picks

A dismal 2-4 for me this weekend in picks. I was reminded several times by Bandits fans where two of those losses came from. And yes I have to take the Bandits more seriously. But they have a bye week, so that’s for next week to deal with. I am now 21-16 on the season. Here’s what I have for this weekend:

Calgary over Vancouver – if anyone picks the Stealth this weekend I will be surprised. One team is on the way up and one team on the way down, although in this league, that’s normally a recipe for an upset. But you won’t see me picking that one. Calgary crushes any hope Vancouver had left this season.

Georgia over Toronto – this is the disadvantage of having to make picks so early in the week. I had Toronto over Georgia down at first. Then came the news that Tom Schreiber is being evaluated. For what isn’t clear. But the possibility that Schreiber isn’t in the lineup, or is hampered by his injury, gives the edge to the Swarm in this one.

Saskatchewan over Rochester – yes, it’s on the road and a long travel day for the Rush’s West Coast players, but Saskatchewan is playing so well this year. You have to pick them every week unless something drastically changes.

New England over Colorado – Sunday games in New England are a huge advantage for the Black Wolves. Their opponents are not used to that type of schedule and from time to time, opponents’ players have work commitments that prevent them from going there. There are simply too many variables involved here to pick Colorado this week.

Lacrosse Experience of a Lifetime

For the people that have read my articles for a while, you know that I spent a long period of time living on the islands of Bermuda and in fact learned to play lacrosse while I was there. You will have also seen many photos of the arena there I hope and continue to work towards holding a box lacrosse tournament in the next few years.

Bermuda lacrosse has another tournament that it holds every year called King of De Rock which is the field lacrosse tournament played at the national stadium grounds on natural grass, a field that is approved by the International Cricket Council and World Rugby. The tournament also includes several off the field functions including a night on a yacht with an open bar. If you want a glimpse on just how fun this tournament is, take a look at the video Tyson Geick put together when he made the trip last year.

Past players have included Zack Greer, Rodney Tapp, Jeremy Noble, Wes Berg and Mark Matthews.

This year the schedule for the tournament has changed from the Labour Day weekend to the Memorial Day weekend (last weekend of May), due to the world field lacrosse championships. For more information on entering this year’s edition as an individual, group or team, visit the Bermuda Lacrosse website. If the video below won’t load for any reason, you can also watch it HERE.

Believe me, it’s an experience you won’t forget, or maybe won’t remember…

Until next time….

For all the latest updates, follow me on Twitter!

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