July 13, 2013

MLL Week 11: Cannons Primed for Stretch Run

by Phil Shore | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

After a rough start, the Cannons are hitting their stride, winners of four straight going into this weekend's All-Star break.
© Bill Danielewski 

After suffering their fifth loss of the season fourweeks ago, the Cannons looked lost. With just one win in six tries, the 2011 Steinfeld Cup champions looked in serious jeapordy of ending a four year playoff streak, sitting just one game ahead of Ohio in the league's basement.

But opponents still knew they were dangerous.

"We're going into a tough environment against a good team," was how Chesapeake Bayhawks coach Dave Cottle worded it before their Week 4 contest. Charlotte Hounds face-off specialist Tim Fallon was more blunt a short while later:

“Boston is a damn good 1-5.”

The record may not have caused opponents any relief facing Boston, but management demanded better. Head coach Steve Duffy was fired and he was replaced by John Tucker.

“If we put together a nice run we can be right back in it,” Cannons GM Kevin Barney said at the time of the change.

The team has shown him to be right on with that assessment, ripping off a four-game win streak - second only to Denver's current 10-game stretch - to improve to 5-5, good for fourth place in the league standings.

Boston has routinely been heralded for their surplus of offensive firepower thanks to Paul Rabil, Ryan Boyle, Matt Poskay, Matt Stone, Kevin Buchanan and Ari Sussman. New players have helped lift the team, however. Rookies Will Manny and Cameron Flint have provided a big boost on the offensive side of the ball, combining for two Rookie of the Week awards and 28 points. Long-pole Scott Ratliff has added much needed toughness and energy to an aging defensive unit.

Then the Cannons added another new face to go along with Tucker, Manny, Flint and Ratliff. The team acquired Stephen Berger at the last minute of the trade deadline from the New York Lizards, adding depth at midfield and another veteran presence in the locker room

He can fill up a stat sheet – he was second on the Charlotte Hounds in scoring last season and third on the Lizards in scoring in 2011 – and he immediately paid dividends on the field.

In his first game with the Cannons, Berger tallied four assists, three of which came in the fourth quarter and the final coming on the tying goal with 1:46 remaining in regulation. Then in overtime, Berger scored the game-winning goal less than two minutes into the frame.

“His veteran leadership will be great for the younger guys. He can play multiple positions,” Tucker said about Berger before the game. “He’s learned to be a good off-ball guy.”

Stretch Run Impact Players

The Cannons are part of a clump of teams muddled in the standings attempting to make a push for the playoffs. Berger will be a big part of Boston’s plans down the stretch. What about the other teams still trying to make the playoffs?

Denver has already qualified for the postseason and Ohio is all but eliminated with only one victory, but these players could make a big difference for the other playoff contenders in the final four games of the regular season.

HAMILTON – KEVIN CROWLEY

Kevin Cunningham is one of the most improved players in the league this year. Joe Walters puts up points on a regular basis. Brodie Merrill is one of the best defenders to ever play the game. But for 2013, Crowley is a difference maker for the Nationals.

The former No. 1 collegiate draft pick is enjoying his finest season to date. In 10 games he has career-highs in goals (29) and points (41). He’s third in the league in points, only two behind leader Paul Rabil. He’s an early candidate for league MVP and while some Hamilton players missed a couple games early on due to NLL commitments, Crowley is one of only four Hamilton players to play in all 10 games. He was a big reason for their 5-0 start.

Crowley’s individual success is great, but it’s his motivation to win a championship that drives him.

“I haven’t won a national championship in my career yet,” he said, including his days in college at Stony Brook. “I’d rather be on a championship winning team and put up a fewer points.”

Don’t be mistaken though; the Nationals will still need big contributions from Crowley to make the playoffs and win the championship.

CHESAPEAKE – CASEY POWELL

Yes, Kevin Cooper is a big, strong and young midfielder that made a big impact in his MLL debut and could be an integral part of the Bayhawks midfield for years to come. Yes, Michael Evans returning from injury gives Chesapeake that final piece of the puzzle to their defense, the glue to the unit back on the field.

But can you imagine the type of impact Powell will have for an already loaded team that won the championship without him last year?

In May, Cottle said that Powell – who previously retired at the end of last season – would suit up for the Bayhawks this season. But needing to serve a two-game suspension first and getting him acclimated into the lineup, there has been no timetable for a Powell move, though he is on the team’s active roster.

He may be 37-years-old but a lot of his game relies on strong stick skills and body control. He also doesn’t have to be “the man” on this team; he’ll have more than enough support around him in the likes of John Grant, Jr., Drew Westervelt, Ben Rubeor and others.

If Powell can give the Bayhawks a late-season jolt like he did in Hamilton in 2011, when he played in the final two regular season games and helped lead the Nationals to the championship game that year, it will just give the Bayhawks another look and another dimension to an already versatile and well-rounded group.

CHARLOTTE – ADAM GHITELMAN

The Hounds are tied for most goals allowed this season (137) but the defense does look better than the 2012 version. They play with better cohesion. A big reason for that is Ghitelman.

The former Virginia goalie has solidified himself as the starting goalie since the middle of last season and the more he plays the more comfortable he looks between the pipes. The more comfortable Ghitelman looks, the better the defense plays as a whole.

In 2013 he has improved his goals against average from 13.99 to 12.81. He also did not play against Denver in the first game of the season, a 21-16 loss for Charlotte.

“He keeps getting better and better,” Hounds All-Star defender Ryan Flanagan said. “He has more energy than anyone. He’s so engaged and involved. We know we can count on him if we make a bad play, he’ll make the save or put a shoulder into somebody. It’s fun.”

The four playoff teams last year were the Bayhawks, Outlaws, Lizards and Cannons. Their goalies were Kip Turner, Jesse Schwartzman, Drew Adams and Jordan Burke, respectively. Adams is the reigning two-time defending Goalie of the Year and Burke and Turner are MLL champions as starting goalies. Schwartzman is a multiple-time All-Star.

The moral of that story is that a team can go a long way if it has a truly elite goalie. Ghitelman may be on the outside of that category of players, but he continues to get better not only every year in the league but every game that he plays.

He also scored a goal of his own against the Boston Cannons in Week 10. He may never score again, but the athleticism and stick skills he showed that allowed him to score will come in handy in the clearing game and under pressure.

If he can continue to raise his game for Charlotte down the stretch they certainly will be competitive and a playoff spot isn’t an unreasonable thought.

ROCHESTER – MATT STRIEBEL

The Outlaws have a number of talented young midfielders on the roster: Steve DiNapoli, Jordan MacIntosh, Rob Rotanz, Dave Lawson and John Ranagan. If the Rattlers are to make the playoffs though, they will need the veteran Striebel to pull them all together.

Striebel has been with the league since its inception. He’s seen a lot of great players and can impart a lot of wisdom to the younger group of players. He also has championship winning experience and showing his teammates what it takes to win a title is invaluable.

But Striebel can still play too.

He is second on the team in points (22) and while he’s always been a good goal scorer, he’s reinvented himself in the manner of how he scores goals.

Striebel scored eight two-point goals in 2012 and is first in the league in two-point goals this year with five.

“[The two-point line] adds a new element,” he said. “It’s something I’ve worked on my shooting. It’s both necessity and my own wanting to evolve the game.”

The Bayhawks showed every one last season how much of an impact the two-point shot can have on games and seasons. Striebel’s mastering of the style of play can have a similar affect on the Rattlers.

Before their Week 10 game, Rattlers coach Tim Soudan spoke about the younger players’ ability to dodge from the top and draw the slide, creating space for the attack in front of the goal. He also said that, to be more consistent, the team would have to be more unpredictable.

While the other middies dodge, Striebel’s shooting can provide opposing defenses another look and draw them out to stop a legitimate scoring threat. This will provide more space in front of the goal for players to get free and create other goal scoring opportunities.

NEW YORK – ROB PANNELL

New York is 3-7 and even if they win out they’ll still need some help from other teams and a little luck in the tiebreakers to land in the playoffs. But they’re still mathematically in it and the rookie is unquestionably the team’s game changer.

Since debuting in Week 5, Lizards head coach Joe Spallina has continued to say Pannell is the QB to the team’s offense and he was to be immediately given the proverbial “keys to the car”.

While the Lizards as a whole have disappointed, Pannell has not. In only six games he leads the team in points (24). He’s earned his first All-Star selection this season.

“It’s been a little difficult to go in and part of you wants to be that guy you were your senior year of college,” Pannell said, “but you have so many [former] All-Americans around you. You have to earn the respect of the guys around you.”

Pannell’s greatest skill, however, is in fact his ability to get his teammates involved. He leads the team in assists this season (10) and had more assists (55) than goals (47) in his senior year of college.

It will be his job to spearhead the effort to create more cohesion on offense with talented players like Mark Matthews, Tommy Palasek, Matt Gibson, Max Seibald, David Earl and Stephen Peyser.

But it does seem like teams are choosing to focus on Pannell in their game-plan and his recognition of that and drive to get better will only benefit the Lizards in the long-run.

“I’ve focused more on going to the goal, going one-on-one,” he said. “In the MLL you have to have a lot of success to draw a slide eventually. I’m focusing more on my individual match-up. Teams are trying to take away my feeding ability.”

Major League Lacrosse has its all-star game this weekend, which will be broadcast on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. on Saturday evening.


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