May 5, 2014

NLL Notebook: No. 1 Offense Against Top Defense

By Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Everybody knows that the Calgary Roughnecks can score. Their offense is the best in the league.

Here is the big question confronting them as they prepare to face the Edmonton Rush for the NLL West championship: Can they penetrate the league's best defense often enough to win?

The 'Necks scored eight, seven and 11 goals in losing the first three of the four games they played against Edmonton during the regular season. They broke loose to win the last one,14-13 in overtime on April 19, and that has to be encouraging for Shawn Evans and his teammates. The only game they've lost in the last seven weeks was to Edmonton and they're looking at the next one - the division final beginning Saturday night in Calgary - as payback time.

''Edmonton is a good team, they've showed that all year, but we're a good team too,'' Evans said in an interview. ''It's going to be a good series. It'll be a good hard-fought battle. Whoever works the hardest is going to win.''

Evans scored the OT winner in the 16-15 semifinal win over Colorado.

''That was an incredible game,'' Evans said. ''There was a lot of back-and-forth action. It was a high-scoring first half and it came down to the wire at the end. The atmosphere was incredible. The fans were on their feet. Colorado had the first three shots of overtime, which was nerve-wracking. I got a chance and it was nice to see it go in the net.''

The 'Necks have more big-time shooters than most teams with Evans and Curtis Dickson the main right-handed attackers and Dane Dobbie, who led the league with 51 goals, and Jeff Shattler are key guys on the left side, often taking set-up passes from NLL assists leader Evans.

''They are both very athletic players,'' says Evans. ''Dobbie can score from everywhere and Shattler is so fast. Everybody on our offensive squad brings something to the table.''

They will be hard to contain.

MAMMOTH CAME, OH, SO CLOSE

Would Colorado have won in Calgary had a thief not stolen goaltender Dillon Ward's pads and forced him to use a borrowed set?

If might sound far-fetched but, it's a given that Ward would have felt more comfortable in his own gear, which disappeared two days before the semifinal. The Vancouver Stealth loaned Ward the gear he used in Calgary, with teammate Athan Iannucci flying in with it from Vancouver, but it was not all the same sizes as what Ward normally wears. He did have his own stick shaft and head. But he allowed more goals than usual and one or two shots he might normally have stopped might have gone in because of the last-minute equipment change, and the Mammoth only lost by one goal.

Regardless, Colorado fans have a lot to look forward to next season. This is a good team that just went through a tumultuous season that included a total coaching staff replacement. While success might well have been achieved with the former staff, the players responded the only way they knew how and gave all they had to interim coaches Dan Stroup, Chris Gill and Pat Coyle. GM Steve Govett now has to decide who to name head coach going forward.

The players' effort in the semi certainly earned them respect from the Roughnecks.

''Hats off to the Colorado Mammoth,'' said Calgary coach Curt Malawsky. ''They went to war and our guys went to war. One shot wins it and we're fortunate enough being on the right side.''

GRANT MOVES TO THIRD

John Grant Jr. of the Mammoth has jumped into third place among all-time playoff goal scorers. The leaders:

1. John Tavares - 79

2. Gary Gait - 67

3. John Grant Jr. - 59

4. Mike Accursi - 58

5. Colin Doyle - 55

6. Paul Gait - 52

7. Dan Dawson - 45

8. Mark Steenhuis - 42.

BANDITS' OFFENSE IN SYNC

Buffalo's offense was spotty, at best, during the eight-game losing streak that spoiled the regular season, but a 15-13 semifinal win in Toronto has shunted that memory to the deepest crevices of the Bandits' collective memory bank.

''We struggled with our offense for the most part of the year,'' coach Troy Cordingley said outside the winners' dressing room. ''I'm glad we're clicking at the right time.

''We were patient with the ball and all five guys were working for that one good shot. It doesn't matter who has the shot or who has the goals as long as the five-man unit is working really well. Full credit to our offense because those guys have been really good the last two games.''

There was a positive vibe leading to the big game, said Cordingley.

''We talked after that last game (a 16-14 loss) against Rochester about making a new start. We had a good practice. You know how social media is today with guys texting each other and emailing. Well, there were some really good things the guys were saying. I just felt today was going to be a different day. We found a way to win, which the last eight games we didn't.''

FORGET THAT

The Rochester-Buffalo NLL East final begins Saturday night in Buffalo. The Knighthawks won three of the four regular-season New York State meetings. But, forget that, the Bandits say.

''We're excited to get back home in front of our fans,'' Bandits defenseman David Brock said after the 15-13 semnifinal win in Toronto. ''Confidence is back. I think we're a force to be reckoned with now.''

Forward Ryan Benesch scored seven goals in the semi in Toronto but has managed only six against the 'Hawks this year.

''We've played them four times already this year so we know what they've got and they know what we've got,'' Benesch said. ''It's just a matter of who's going to bring it on both nights. It's going to be a great series, a great battle, and I'm excited.''

OPPORTUNE MOMENT

Dhane Smith's quick thinking led to one of Buffalo's key goals - the one that put the Bandits up 12-10 at the 1:20 mark of the fourth quarter. The ball was loose a good four feet inside Toronto's crease. Smith extended his stick and pulled it out of the crease before goalie Brandon Miller could get to it. Smith then tossed in a low shot before Miller was set.

''That put a little more life in our feet,'' said Ryan Benesch. ''Dhane made a great play to grab that ball and stay out of the crease and put it in. That pumped us up a little more. From there, we knew we were in control. That was a great play by Dhane.''

SICK OF LOSING TO TORONTO

John Tavares was getting sick of losing to Toronto in the playoffs. Up 6-1 in the first round two years ago, the Bandits lost 7-6. They lost the division final at home against the Rock in 2011 too.

''After losing eight games [to finish the regular season] and having Toronto eliminate us from the playoffs the last few years, it was nice coming in here and winning,'' Tavares said last Saturday night. ''We're taking that rollercoaster a little bit further back up.

''We were up the first half of the year, way down the second half, and we're trying to climb back up now and, hopefully, we'll build momentum going against Rochester. The guys are really happy. It was a good lacrosse game. Give Toronto credit. They never quit. They kept coming, kept coming, and we kept answering.''

SHAKEUP INEVITABLE

After a 9-9 regular season and first-round playoff elimination for the second year in a row, significant roster changes are looming in Toronto. Many of them should be on the back end. This team used to win championships because of impenetrable defense. No more.

''We just didn't play very well,'' head coach John Lovell said after Buffalo eliminated his team. ''We weren't very good - plain and simple.

''We played well down the stretch but, in my mind, we just gift-wrapped that one. We have to play better defensively and we have but that was not our best defensive effort by any means.''

One had to feel sorrow at times for goalie Brandon Miller given the wide open shooting chances the Bandits waltzed into.

''Would [Miller] like to have had some back? Probably, but you know, when Ryan Benesch has a hot stick and has as much time as he had to shoot the ball, or J.T. has that much time to shoot the ball, it's pretty difficult [for the goaltender]. I just thought we were poor defensively, and that's the difference.''

The offense left a lot to be desired, too.

''I just didn't think we looked after the ball as well as we had on other occasions, especially offensively,'' said Lovell. ''There were too many turnovers that made it too easy for Buffalo to be in our zone. Instead of making them go 200 feet like we did a couple of weeks ago when we played them they were going 90 feet, 100 feet or 110 feet instead.''

''[Overall,] we just didn't play very well. I just didn't think we were as efficient as we had been in the last six weeks. We put a lot of bad things that hurt us earlier in the year, put them all together tonight. Didn't look after the ball offensively and poor defensive effort.''

The loss of Garrett Billings, who was leading the league in total points before going down with a torn knee ligament last month, certainly hurt. But it wasn't the reason for elimination. Players and coach were agreement on that.

''I don't think it was our best effort,'' said forward Rob Hellyer, the NLL's player of the month for April. ''The chances were there for us to put the game away but, while they capitalized on theirs, we didn't make good on ours. We put up 13, but obviously, it wasn't enough. There were a few that were left on the floor.''

Captain Colin Doyle tried as best he could to rationalize.

''We made some mistakes and it cost us,'' he said. ''That aside, our [work] ethic was there. Our drive was there. We didn't underestimate them. We did a lot of good things but we just made some mistakes and they made us pay for it. That's life in a one-game knockout.''

CORDINGLEY TIES HALL

Troy Cordingley moved into a tie for third place with Chris Hall on the career playoff coaching wins list when Buffalo beat Toronto. The all-time leaders:

1. Les Bartley - 18

2. Darris Kilgour - 12

3. Chris Hall and Troy Cordingley - 11

5. Tony Resch - 8

6. Ed Comeau - 7

7. Mike Hasen and Dave Evans - 6

9. Derek Keenan, Paul Day and Bob Hamley - 5

GREAT DEAL

This has to be the best deal for playoff tickets in any North American sport: the Rochester Knighthawks are selling postseason seats for $17 to $22 when purchased prior to Saturday, and $25 to $30 on game day - if there are any left.

LOOKING BACK

MAY 6, 2000: Kaleb Toth fired a ball over the right shoulder of Rochester goalie Pat O'Toole with one second remaining to give Toronto a 14-13 victory and a second straight championship in the last sports event to be held in Maple Leaf Gardens. 

MAY 14, 2005: Colin Doyle was named MVP after scoring five goals to help Toronto defeat the Arizona Sting 19-13 in front of an Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,432. It was the fifth Rock championship in seven years. Les Bartley, who coached the team to four of those titles, passed away following an 18-month battle with colon cancer on May 15.


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