Who Will Advance in NLL Playoffs? It's a Crapshoot
by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online
The Orlando Titans might be favored on paper against the Boston Blazers, Theresa Smith writes, but Boston has had Orlando's number this year.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com
Three of the four playoff games appear to be closely matched as the National Lacrosse League begins postseason play on Saturday. Buffalo at Toronto, Boston at Orlando and Edmonton at Calgary are expected to be tight games, while Washington has a decisive edge over Minnesota in the battle between the West’s No. 1-seeded Stealth (11-5) and the fourth-seeded Swarm (5-11).
East Division: Buffalo at Toronto
Buffalo (8-8) is coming off a playoff-clinching 13-10 victory over Boston in which John Tavares and Mike Accursi each scored three goals with three assists. Mike Thompson made 46 saves for the Bandits.
While Toronto (9-7) has a superior record and home floor advantage, the teams were evenly matched in the regular season. The Rock won the first meeting 14-10. Buffalo prevailed 11-10 and 13-10 in subsequent games. Both teams scored 34 goals each in the three-game series.
“From the Toronto standpoint, we’re expecting a tight game, and I can’t see any reason it won’t play out like the three games,’’ said Rock coach Terry Sanderson.
Sanderson and his staff had the advantage of extra preparation time and spent most of it watching the Bandits on film, figuring, correctly so, that they would face Buffalo.
In contrast, the Bandits did not secure their playoff future until the last regular season game, the win over Boston. Buffalo coach Darris Kilgour believes the key is execution.
“We think we can break down their defense, just like they can break down our defense," Kilgour said. “It is really going to come down to execution, whoever can do that. And I think if we can stay out of the [penalty] box, I think we have a chance."
Sanderson is concerned about Buffalo players who can pile up the goals, including Tavares and Mark Steenhuis, who led the Bandits with 36 goals.
“We know that at any time they can break out on offense," Sanderson said.
The Rock counters with likely NLL Rookie of the year Stephan Leblanc, a 36-goal scorer, play-maker extraordinaire Colin Doyle, Blaine Manning (35 goals) and another outstanding rookie, Garrett Billings (33 goals).
After battling injuries all season, both teams are healthy, giving the coaches the luxurious, but difficult task of deciding who dresses and who watches from the press box.
It is the first time in four years that Toronto is playing host in the playoffs, yet Buffalo defeated the Rock at Air Canada Centre 11-10 on March 12.
“We really believe we can go on the road and win anywhere," Kilgour said. “We have that kind of confidence, but confidence can be short-lived on the floor. You get a couple bad breaks and confidence is a fragile thing."
East Division: Boston at Orlando
In a comparison of records, it would not appear that Boston (8-8) could give Orlando (11-5) a game at Amway Arena. Yet head-to-head, the Blazers own a 2-1 series lead, including a double overtime triumph on Feb. 20 that proved to be the longest game in NLL history.
Boston lacks momentum, however. Needing a win over Buffalo to secure a playoff berth, the Blazers lost and backed in, courtesy of a Rochester loss to Washington.
“We feel like we have a second chance," said Boston coach Tom Ryan, who hurried his squad back to its hotel to watch the Rochester-Washington game. “The night ended well for us."
The contest features two of the league’s best scorers and set-up men: Boston’s Dan Dawson, the reigning NLL Most Valuable Player, and Orlando’s Casey Powell.
Dawson scored 36 goals, tied for sixth in the NLL, and Powell scored 44, second-best in the league to the 46 buried by Washington’s Lewis Ratcliff.
The matchup also features two of the league’s best goaltenders, Boston’s Anthony Cosmo (9.50 goals against average, .799 save percentage) and Orlando’s Matt Vinc (9.51, .810).
“The history in the playoffs is that scoring goes down and teams play a little tighter,’’ said Orlando coach Ed Comeau, who guided his squad to an NLL runner-up finish last season out of New York. “Both teams are shooting against one of the top goalies in the league and against top defenses. Both teams will have a challenge trying to put the ball past those goalies."
Ryan predicted that the team that scores over 10 goals will win.
West Division: Edmonton at Calgary
In the West, Edmonton (10-6) travels to Calgary (10-6) for a Battle of Alberta and the first Rush playoff appearance in history.
The defending champion Roughnecks have the experience and the pedigree, but the Rush has a hodgepodge of holdover talent, such as Andy Secore, and relocated stars, including Brodie Merrill, Ryan Ward, Gavin Prout and Ryan Powell.
Calgary won the regular season series 2-1, but the latter victory, on April 16, was by a mere goal, 15-14.
Dane Dobbie leads Calgary with 38 goals. Josh Sanderson, tops the NLL in points with 104, has dished 70 assists.
Adding scoring and passing punch in time for the playoffs, team captain Tracey Kelusky scored a goal with three assists in last weekend’s win over Colorado, marking his return from a three-game absence due to concussion symptoms. Kelusky was hit in the head against Orlando.
West Division: Minnesota at Washington
The final matchup tilts heavily to the Stealth and their superior firepower -- Lewis Ratcliff, Rhys Duch with 33 goals and Jeff Zywicki with 30 goals.
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