2004 NLL OUTLOOK: League / Western Division / Eastern Division/ Mid-Season

By Ted Montour, Canada/NLL Editor

The thing about putting your predictions down is that everyone gets to see how prescient you were. The Buffalo Bandits played their best game since mid-season, and took a 13 - 9 victory home from Rochester. The Calgary Roughnecks had their best outing since, well, their last trip to San Jose, except that this time they came out on the front end of a one-goal decision, 15 - 14 over the Stealth, despite a brilliant 6-goal performance from San Jose's Rusty Kruger (Rusty is the main reason that I had asked both coaches last week, who might come out of the weeds to hurt them). So, I was 1 for 2 last week-end, but with the kicker that I saw Rusty coming; it's on to the semi-finals, and things get a little more interesting.

West Division - Calgary at Colorado, Saturday, April 24 [noon Mountain, 2:00 p.m. Eastern, live in Canada on The Score TV]

The Calgary Roughnecks had to allow themselves at least a brief pat on the back after eliminating San Jose, before starting their preparations for this week-end's trip to the Mile High City. They overcame the bitter taste of an overtime loss their last time in San Jose to round out the schedule, after knocking off Toronto in the Saddledome, in double OT, the night before. I for one expected that the Stealth would, if not overpower, then at least outlast the Roughies in what fulfilled every promise of being a close, "who takes the last shot" kind of game. As things turned out, San Jose did get the last shot, but it was one too few to pull even, and Calgary held on 15 - 14.

Goaltender Curtis Palidwor has been consistently strong for Calgary since mid-season. He rested and Matt King, in his first action since All Star week-end, got a chance to refresh his chops in the closing win in Anaheim. The Roughnecks went 5 - 2 over that same stretch, and Palidwor in fact finished third behind only Colorado's Gee Nash and Buffalo's Steve Dietrich in individual save percentage. All of this to say that Palidwor is the key factor for the Roughnecks.

What can you say about the Mammoth? Nash, Gait, Prout, great crowds, non-stop success since the move to Denver --- the mastadon in the room, so to speak, is the absence of a championship. So, is this the year? Last year was supposed to be, but the Mammoth came up short, then, with the Steinbrenneresque free-agent acquisitions, plus the early-season high dive by the Rock, this year is supposed to be it - the end of the Toronto dynasty, the beginning of the Colorado era, and, maybe, a triumphant retirement / birthday party for Gary Gait (although there has been no audible hint of this recently, the question remains).

I think this IS the year, at least to get into the final. As to what will happen when Buffalo comes to town, it is too early by a week to say.

East Division - Buffalo at Toronto, Sunday, April 25 [3:00 p.m. Eastern, noon Pacific, live in Canada on The Score TV, in New York on DirecTV channel 626, and Dish Network channel 432]

Against the Knighthawks last Saturday, the Bandits managed to do the single thing that they absolutely must, if they are to advance to the Champion's Cup final --- they stayed away from bad penalties. As a matter of fact, full marks to second-year defender Billy Dee Smith, who played a tough, heady game and spent 0 minutes in the box. To illustrate how serious Head Coach Darris Kilgour was about this problem (though I would never be so foolish as to suggest that he is anything less than serious about this game), veteran Kyle Couling's early-second-quarter shift that ended with a five-minute cross-checking major (NLL-speak for checking from behind), was his last of the night.

Nothwithstanding the 11 infractions and 25 minutes that they did serve, and the 5-for-8 performance of Rochester's power play, the Bandits did not implode. Indeed, they kept their cool in the face of every temporary setback, including being on the short end of half-time and third-quarter scores, and then shut out the Knighthawks 5-0 in the final frame. John Tavares tallied 2 goals and 3 assists and provided inspirational leadership, but it was his wingmen, Mark Steenhuis (5 goals) and Jonas Derks (4 goals), taking 13 and 9 shots, respectively, and putting every one of them on net, who did the most damage. In the fourth quarter, Steenhuis scored three at even strength, and Derks a short-hander at a point (four and-a-half minutes left) where Rochester still had time to rally.

Steve Dietrich was the other big factor for the Bandits; while not yet fully recovered from a mid-season groin injury, 85% or so of Chugger was more than enough on this night, as he stopped 33 of 42 Rochester shots, and everyone except Derek Malawsky (5 goals). He still had some moments when his side-to-side mobility was limited, but his reflexes and reading of the play were sharp, and he challenged shooters at every opportunity, often stepping well outside his crease to cut angles.

While it's pretty nigh impossible to intimidate the Toronto Rock, they must have some concern going into this semi, if for no other reason than that the week off might have diminished their momentum, especially after the season-ending loss to Rochester. While Head Coach and General Manager Terry Sanderson will have certainly kept them sharp and focused at practice, this is a different Buffalo team than the one they faced a month ago in the closing home-and-home series of the regular season. The Rock had things pretty much their own way in both of those games, and Colin Doyle had a massive week-end (2 goals and 2 assists, then 6-4), with solid offensive support from the likes of Ken Millin, Sandy Chapman and Matt Shearer.

This Sunday afternoon I'm betting we will see Bob "Whipper" Watson starting in goal for the Rock, with Anthony Cosmo a very possible back-up, especially if the Bandits start bombing from long range (Roy Colsey, party of one). If the Bandits can continue their disciplined play in the Air Canada Centre, where they have had a tendency to see a hostile zebra behind every call, they have possibly a better chance even than last season, of going to the Champion's Cup --- at least that's what I foresee.

All Photos from team websites