By Ted Montour, Canada/NLL Editor
Curtis Palidwor won the National Lacrosse League Champion's Cup Friday night at the Saddledome in Calgary. I don't mean the MVP trophy for the game, an honor which he richly deserved, I mean the new and improved Champion's Cup itself - just give it to him until this time next year, and have him hand it to Commissioner Jim Jennings to present at the next NLL title contest. That's how good he was.
The 2004 play-offs had already seen some stellar goaltending, including previous performances by Palidwor, as well as the Buffalo Bandits' Steve Dietrich, but nothing compared to what Curtis - which reminds, he definitely needs a nickname, especially since he has joined the select fraternity of NLL championship keepers - did on this night.
The 14 - 11 final score, which included a last minute, empty-net coup de grâce by Jess Phillips, was but a footnote to Palidwor's performance. Buffalo struck first, but their 4 - 1 lead to start the second quarter was the only one they would hold, as Ted Dowling, on a power play, started an 8-goal run that extended well into the third quarter and hermetically sealed the Bandits' fate. Dowling had announced well in advance that this would be his final game of pro box lacrosse and he might have been an MVP candidate on another night, as his 2 goals and 2 assists paced the Calgary scorers, and I can't remember ever seeing him going to the net harder. So would Jesse Phillips, whose hat-trick, that matched his entire regular-season goal production, was in a very real way the margin of victory.
The Bandits, with another inspirational game from John Tavares, could not have done much more than they did, short of having a sniper in the rigging of the Saddledome (and bullets would have just bounced off of Palidwor anyway). "Chugger" looked at times as if his injury woes of earlier this season had come back to haunt him, but he made his share of big stops as well, particularly when his team-mates were clawing their way back to within a goal, to 11 - 10, in the second half. There were also several moments, Neal Powless's first-period heater from outside especially, when it looked like a new hero might emerge for Buffalo, à la San Jose's Rusty Kruger, but like the Stealth, the Bandits ultimately came up short against the boys from Cowtown.
Hometown hero Kaleb Toth, whose first NLL championship ring came in 2000 with his buzzer-beater for the Toronto Rock to edge out the Rochester Knighthawks, is one of five native Albertans, including fellow Calgarian Jason Wulder and Edmonton's Taylor and Devan Wray, on this title-winning roster, and no one was happier than he with the Cup. Owner / governor / general manager Brad Banister, who has directed this franchise from expansion to championship in the span of three seasons, is to be congratulated for his stewardship, including the sell-out crowd of 19,200 on what to some Calgarians at least was just an off night between Flames games - and is to my mind the real Exec of the Year, with all due respect to Steve Govett. Head Coach Chris Hall was truly joyful with the final horn, and, notwithstanding the readily available hugs from his bench staff and players, reminded me a little of the late Coach Jim Valvano, "Coach V" from New Yawk via North Carolina State University, when his team of over-achievers won the NCAA hoops title.
This is arguably the most successful season for the NLL since it morphed from the MILL into its present form in 1998. It is certainly the most successful in Commissioner Jim Jennings' tenure. The US television coverage for this final was unprecedented, and the Commish and his staff - special mention to Director of Public Relations Doug Fritts - have done an admirable job of steering the League through expansion, franchise transplant and contraction, to what can only be described as consolidation.
While I'm handing out congratulations, I must not forget the broadcast team and The Score sports TV network in Canada. Play-by-play announcer Tim Micaleff, he of the shaved pate and soul patch, has developed a unique style for pro box lacrosse, and his now-signature "… a shot 'n' a goal!" growl is just what NLL broadcasts needed. Color man Brian Shanahan has also become more comfortable in his role, growing from locker-room nicknames to insightful and well-researched commentary since his early on-air days with the Toronto Maple Leafs "old sweat" Joe Bowen covering the Rock. And Martine Gaillard, certainly the best-known native of St. Brieux, Saskatchewan in Canada, brings her thoroughly professional manner to bench and sideline mini-interviews that punctuate and illuminate, rather than disrupt, the flow of the telecast.
To my own prognostication defence, how could I predict the level of performance delivered by Palidwor? Likely, not even Curtis himself could have envisioned such a game. Anyone who has experienced "being in the zone", whether in sport or elsewhere, knows that the best that one can do is prepare to go there, in hopes that the right circumstances will develop. It's "preparation meets opportunity". I was not surprised to see either of these two teams get to the final, just by the outcome. We can all be glad that I did not choose a career as a meteorologist in "tornado alley".