May 7, 2013

Stevens: NLL's Stealth Are Back Where They Belong

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

Washington coach Chris Hall (left) and general manager Doug Locker (right), each in their own way, have guided the Stealth to Saturday's NLL championship game.
© Richard Olson

The 2013 Washington Stealth will be remembered as one of the greatest comeback teams in NLL history regardless of the outcome of the championship game Saturday night.

The Stealth were last overall in 2012 but now are within a win over the Rochester Knighthawks of hoisting the Champion's Cup.

So, coach Chris Hall, are you surprised or did you believe all along that this would happen?

''Somewhere in between,'' he replied during an interview. ''We knew we'd be better than last year.

''We wanted to try and get off to a good start because that's important in this league, and we did get off to a good start, and about halfway through the season we started to figure out we were as good as anybody else. It just became then a matter of being healthy and making sure that our team strategies matured so people were comfortable with everything and that we were on the upswing going into the playoffs. We needed to get some bounces and we got some of those. We eventually decided that anybody can win this thing so, Why not us? ''

The answer to that question early in the third quarter of the first-round home playoff game against Edmonton could have been summed up with one word: impossible.

The Rush led 6-0 and Hall had just lifted Tyler Richards and sent in backup Matt Roik.

''It was kind of one of those points where you know the season is on the line,'' Hall said of the seconds it took to make the goaltending switch. ''It's either going to go one way or the other.

''You're either going to go in the tank and it's going to be a disappointing end to a decent season or you're going to find a spark and get back into the game and see where it goes from there. We were on the brink of disaster and found a way to come back. Matt Roik went in and made a couple of stops which we needed at the time, giving Tyler a rest and a chance to refocus. We managed to regroup. At the start of second half we got an early goal from Rhys Duch, which was huge, and from that point on we played really well.''

Hall rates that come-from-behind 12-11 win as ''the greatest comeback in my coaching career.'' That says something because Hall has spent 11 years, including 2004 (Calgary) and 2010 (Washington) title runs, behind NLL benches.

''The thought that came to mind at the time: How the heck did we do that against a really tough defense and against a team that many thought come playoff time could quite easily be the team to beat? A lot of people thought Edmonton was the best team in the league at that point. How did we manage to do that? I talked to [defenseman] Jeff Moleski, who'd been through a few, and he couldn't believe it himself — that we found a way to win that game.''

It was on to Calgary for the West final. The Stealth were up 10-5 in the third quarter when the determined Roughnecks scored five of the quarter's last six goals.

''You have a sense of that,'' Hall replied when asked if he feared that the roof was caving in. ''We'd experienced the reverse the week before. What we managed to do to Edmonton, Calgary was doing to us.''

The Roughnecks expended a lot of energy clawing their way back into the game. The score was tied three times in the final quarter.

''Sometimes when you're the chasing team, when you get the tie there's almost a sense of relief,'' said Hall. ''Our guys, that's the time they hunkered down and dug deeper whereas the team that just caught you has that sense of relief. Every time Calgary tied us we answered with a goal. It was tough on them and uplifting for us. Kudos to our guys for mounting the effort to stay ahead.''

Rhys Duch broke the third tie at 8:06 of the fourth quarter and Washington held Calgary off the scoresheet for the last eight minutes to win 14-13.

''That's a tribute to our defense and to Tyler Richards,'' Hall said of the stellar back end work in the last eight minutes. ''Our defense has been pretty good this year and Tyler Richards has been great.

''Our defense has a lot of confidence. It's a determined group. That's a great offense that Calgary's got. They've got tons of guys who can beat us but our defense was confident that it could stop any offense. We hadn't been able do anything about Mr. Dickson. He was a man possessed. But in those last eight minutes we tried to lock him down and deny him the ball as much as possible. If somebody was going to beat us, we had to make it be somebody else.''

There was nobody else.

The Stealth prevailed — much to the surprise of most observers who watched the 2012 lineup win only four games and miss the playoffs. There was a long list of reasons for that: Hall's throat cancer kept him away for the first half of the season, the team was awful without him, injuries made continuity impossible, Richards had a sub-par year, the defense sagged too often . . . and on and on.

All that matters now is that Hall land his players are looking forward to participating in the 2013 final.

''It's incredibly rewarding, obviously,'' said Hall.

He credits GM Doug Locker with finding the players the team needed to turn things around.

''Our offense was decent,'' said Hall. ''It wasn't as though we needed to find a marquee offensive player. We felt our needs were more on the back end than on the front end. We didn't have a first-round pick, which is where the top offensive players usually go, but we had second- and third-round picks and that's where traditionally you find some quality defensive players from winning organizations.''

Tyler Garrison (drafted 11th overall), Bill Hostrawser (12th overall), Justin Pychel (19th overall), Tim Henderson (23rd overall out of Army) and Mitch McMichael (undrafted, Cornell) were rookies who played significant roles on the back end for the Stealth this year. Getting them was a big reason why Locker got the award as GM of the year and why the team is where it is today.

''We arrived at a good mix of core veteran guys and young rookies from organizations with winning traditions,'' said Hall.

Washington won the title in 2010, lost the 2011 final in Toronto, missed the playoffs last year and is in the final again this year.

''Three out of four years now we're in the championship game,'' says Hall. ''We're all very proud of that right — from our owner to our logistics people, to our staff and our fans.''

What lies ahead — a 60-minute battle with the Rochester Knighthawks — is a formidable challenge.

''The good news is we played them twice, albeit early in the season, and we split,'' said Hall. ''They were tight, close games. We've got to find a way to get some goals. Matt Vinc is a fantastic goalie and they've got a rock-solid defense in front of him.

''By the same token, we have to do a good job in our end. Our goaltender is not so bad either and our defense is pretty good. It has the potential to shape up to be one of those epic one-goal defensive battles from start to finish. It might be a grind-it-out game.''

After last year, Hall and his players are delighted to be part of it — not that they're planning on settling for only that.

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli — a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor — are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame.


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