April 16, 2014

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NLL Notes: Ward Making Case for Honors in Colorado

By Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Stevens Archive

Dillon Ward has been a rock for Colorado in net. Can he become the first-ever goalie honored as NLL Rookie of the Year? (Dale MacMillan)

It was not a huge surprise that it was Colorado that ended Edmonton's undefeated streak at 14 given the way that Mammoth goalie Dillon Ward has been playing. The six-foot-five Canadian out of Kentucky's Bellarmine University has rookie of the year written all over him.

''Dillon Ward was unbelievable,'' captain John Grant Jr. said after the 10-8 victory at home last Friday night. ''I keep forgetting that guy is a rookie. That was one of the better performances I've ever seen.''

A goaltender has never won the top rookie award.

Ward is the latest goalie to achieve stardom after growing up playing box lacrosse in Orangeville, Ontario. Toronto goalies Brandon Miller and Nick Rose, Philadelphia's No. 1 Evan Kirk and Buffalo's No. 1 Anthony Cosmo also either grew up there or currently live among the 30,000 residents of Orangeville, which is an hour's drive northwest of Toronto.

''It's just lacrosse,'' Ward said in deflecting praise after frustrating Rush shooters. ''I've been playing for almost 20 years now.''

He's 23.

Save percentages (minimum 120 minutes): 1. Angus Goodleaf, Rochester, .840; 2. Brandon Miller, Toronto, .810; 3. Anthony Cosmo, Buffalo, .804; 4. Aaron Bold, Edmonton, .791; 5. Dillon Ward, Colorado, .768; 6. Evan Kirk, Philadelphia, .766; 7. Mike Poulin, Calgary, .764; 8. Tyler Richards, Vancouver, .763; 9. Nick Rose, Toronto, .760; 10. Zack Higgins, Minnesota, .744; 11. Tyler Carlson, Minnesota, .738; 12. Matt Roik, Vancouver, .725; 13. Tye Belanger, Colorado, .630.

Goodleaf has only played 135 minutes as Rochester's backup but, when called upon, he's been solid.

Miller had a .689 save percentage in limited duty with Philadelphia before being traded to Toronto but he's played so well in 175 minutes of action with the Rock that he's started their last two games and got the win in both.

Cosmo has played the most minutes, 888, and made the most saves, 645. Polar bears have seen less ice than Coz.

ROCHESTER CLINCHES NLL EAST

A 10-7 home win over Vancouver, combined with Buffalo's 10-9 loss in Minnesota, gave the Knighthawks the NLL East title for the first time since 2007. They earned a first-round playoff bye. So, coach Mike Hasen and his players will go to either Buffalo or Toronto to start the two-game division final on the May 9-11 weekend.

First, they'll finish their regular season playing Buffalo at home on Saturday and going to Buffalo on April 26. Rochester has won three in a row and seven of its last eight as it readies to shoot for a third straight championship.

EDMONTON REBOUNDS IMPRESSIVELY

After having their undefeated streak end at 14 in Denver last Friday, the Rush might have been excused a letdown in Calgary where they had to play again Saturday. No, GM-coach Derek Keenan's players would have none of that. Tied 11-11 with seven minutes remaining, they blasted the Roughnecks with four straight goals to run away with a 15-11 victory. That was impressive.

Curtis Knight scored six goals in the win, giving the second-year forward a team-high 32 on the season. Knight isn't big but he's elusive and has a high lacrosse IQ. The only right-hand shooters with more goals than Knight this year are Calgary's Curtis Dickson and Vancouver's Rhys Duch.

The Rush, 15-1, have locked up first place overall so will get a first-round playoff bye. They finish their schedule at home Saturday against Calgary and at home the following Friday against Vancouver. Keenan will be able to rest the walking wounded to get ready for the two-game division final on the May 9-11 weekend.

ROCK SURVIVE LOSS OF BILLINGS - SO FAR

A clutch 10-9 home win over Philadelphia that clinched a playoff berth last Saturday helped Toronto players convince themselves they can survive the season-ending loss of league-leading scorer Garrett Billings, who tore the ACL in his right knee the previous weekend. It was one of the best defensive efforts by the Rock this year.

''The defense knew they had to help (the offense) out and they did,'' said captain Colin Doyle.

With Billings out, Rob Hellyer and Kasey Beirnes were going to get more touches on the right side of the offense, and they came through with three and two goals, respectively.

''It felt alright,'' Doyle replied when asked about the Billings-less attack. ''We certainly miss him but we played hard in a different way and we managed.

''I thought we left some (goals) on the table. We had lots of good chances. We didn't get run on and we wore 'em down. My hat goes off to them. They played really hard. They made us earn everything we got. We had a couple of chances at 10-8 to really put the game on ice. That's the only thing I wish we'd done differently.''

The win came on the heels of a 17-9 triumph in Vancouver. This one was much harder to get.

''It was a gutsy win,'' said Josh Sanderson. ''It felt like a playoff game. I'm proud of everybody in here. Battling through for these last two wins were huge. It looks like we're starting to play a little better.''

The pressure of battling for a playoff spot has finally dispersed.

''That's a big one,'' said Stephan Leblanc, who fired in three goals from the left side. ''That's an emotional win for us, especially with GB out. We really had to battle to get that one so we're real happy.''

THE SCORING RACE

Rochester's Cody Jamieson and Calgary's Shawn Evans have the best chance, with Colorado's John Grant Jr. also still in the picture, of overtaking injured Toronto star Garrett Billings in the scoring race. Each has two games left in their teams' 18-game schedules. Billings has 101 points, Jamieson has 96, Evans has 92 and Grant has 86.

Evans won the scoring title last season, when teams played 16 games, with 112 points.

MVP THOUGHTS

Edmonton and Rochester are the division champions so it would be logical to select a player from one of these teams as league MVP.

Defense has been the strong point for both clubs. Thus, any of goaltender Aaron Bold and defensemen Chris Corbeil and Kyle Rubisch would be a deserving Edmonton candidate, while goaltender Matt Vinc, defenseman Sid Smith and forward Cody Jamieson, if he wins the scoring title, would be logical Knighthawks candidates.

The award has been given out since 1994. The only goalie to win it was Steve Dietrich, in 1994 while with Buffalo, and a defenseman has never been selected.

OH, SO CLOSE

Philadelphia captain Brodie Merrill tried as best he could to adopt a positive frame of mind after the Wings' hope of making the playoffs was extinguished by the one-goal loss in Toronto.

''To be honest, it's kind of a tough place to be mentally right now,'' he said before pulling off the pads. ''We know there's no chance for us to move on now but you have to look for some positive signs to build on and there are some.

''It's been a tough year but when you look back it's not major things but some subtle things we were on the wrong side of, especially in key moments. That's why we are where we are and we have to face that and not hide from that. We have to respond and try to finish (the season) strong.''

Coach Blaine Harrison rued the missed chance a win would have provided.

''Everybody is disappointed,'' he said. ''It was a great opportunity lost.

''We played okay. We had some decent chances but B. Miller was A. Miller. That's the way he can go. We had some good looks down the stretch and couldn't bury them. So everybody is disappointed. We talked during the last couple of games about leaving a lot on the table and we left a lot on the table tonight. Defensively, we'd like to have some goals back and, offensively, we had some chances and when you've got three guys on the right side you want to bury the ball and they can't, it's tough. So, everybody is frustrated.''

Setbacks began last autumn.

''We started off being thrown a curveball with the U.S. guys pulling the chute on us so in the middle of training camp we had to go left when we were trying to go right,'' said Harrison. ''That created an opportunity for some guys like Pat Saunders who we picked up. He was a nice addition through that whole process. Ownership had to reassess the whole procurement strategy about U.S.-based players and look to bring some guys in. That was a big deal, missing guys during training camp. Training camp in this league is a big deal especially for us so when you get guys holding out, or whatever their financial situation is, and it really hurts us.''

Overall, ''We've had a pretty decent season,'' Harrison added. ''But we're young on defense, kind of patchwork on offense . . . We got it together at moments and then we let it get away.''

DIACHENKO GETS A GOAL IN FIRST GAME

Nick Diachenko patiently waited his turn and, when he got it, he made the most of it.

Diachenko was drafted by Buffalo last September, released before the season began, picked up by Toronto, and was an extra Rock body through the winter. When Garrett Billings blew out his right knee on April 5, it was Diachenko that the coaches chose to get the spot in the active roster.

Appearing in his first NLL game in Toronto on Saturday night, he gained possession of a loose ball in the Philadelphia end, spun around the man checking him, and took a shot while falling. The ball eluded goalie Evan Kirk and Diachenko had his first NLL goal. It tied the game 6-6 at 5:25 of the second quarter.

''I was nervous,'' he said. ''I didn't think I'd get the monkey off my back that early but I did and when that kind of thing happens it definitely relaxes you for the rest of the game.''

The jitters were understandable given it was the team's most crucial game of the season. To play a positive part in it was ultra satisfying.

''It was an unbelievable feeling to get in there and be part of a game like this, clinching a playoff spot,'' he said after the 10-9 Rock victory. ''Everyone is so excited and so am I.''

He usually fills a defensive role but coach John Lovell gave him some time on the Billings-depleted right side of the offense. It had been an agonizingly long wait to get into his first game.

''Everyone has to pay his dues,'' he said. ''There's a lot of great guys on this team and guys that didn't play (Saturday) who deserve to be out there so I was just thankful to get my chance and do well for the team.''

UNDEFEATED WITH WOODS

Cam Woods has played two games for Toronto since coming out of retirement and they've won both of them. The defenseman, who turns 38 on April 27, was kiddingly asked after helping the Rock beat the Wings if he was satisfied that his plan to rescue the team was panning out.

''I don't know if I was rescuing anybody tonight,'' he said with a smile. ''I think Brandon Miller did a lot of rescuing tonight. But it certainly does feel good to be back out here with these guys and be a part of achieving the first goal, which was making the playoffs. As long as we can progressively keep getting better, hopefully, we'll find our stride come playoff time.''

TIME LINE

April 23, 1999: The Toronto Rock finished their first NLL season with a perfect home record, 8-0 including regular-season and playoff games, after a 13-10 win over Rochester in the championship game in front of a Maple Leaf Gardens crowd of 15,691. Colin Doyle was named MVP.


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