By Ted Montour, Canada/NLL Editor
WHO WILL TAKE THE CUP?
East Semi-Final - Rochester at Toronto
One of the major disappointments of the 2005 NLL TV-viewing season has to be the fact that there was no telecast of the first-round match last week-end between Rochester and Buffalo. The Bandit faithful, plus the K'hawk Krew and others who made the trip, were treated to, what was by all accounts, a classic between these long-time rivals. The Knighthawks broke a two-season jinx at the HSBC Arena with a convincing 19-14, wire-to-wire victory. Former Bandit Mike Accursi scored 7 goals to pace the visitors, and neither Steve Dietrich nor Derek General could stem the scoring tide enough to give the Bandits a chance to get back into this game. So now it is on to the Air Canada Centre, another building where it took a while for the Knighthawks to break into the win column, to face the East Division and League regular-season leaders, the Toronto Rock. There is no reason to suspect that the Rock will suffer any rust, but they will have to be prepared for a Rochester side that has some undeniable momentum.
Notwithstanding the disingenuous media faces of the two bench bosses, there will be all kinds of pride at stake here. Paul Day started this season with what seems to be his perennial burden of having the "best team on paper", lead by 2003 World Indoor and 2004 Mann Cup MVP John Grant, fresh from his Canadian championship win for the hometown Peterborough Lakers, virtually twenty years to the day since their last in 1984. Goalie Pat O'Toole was also a major factor in the Lakers' national championship, while Shawn Williams, who carried the 'hawks offensively last season after Grant went down for the duration, continued a tear that saw him lead the Ontario Major Series 2004 regular-season scoring race with 46 goals and 124 points in 18 games for the Brooklin Redmen.
The Knighthawks took both ends of a home-and-home from the Rock in late January, including a 15 - 6 rout in Toronto, then lost 15 - 9 in the ACC a month later. Grant finished his sixth NLL regular season with 49 goals and 106 points, second to Toronto's Colin Doyle, and Williams was eighth in League scoring with 33 goals and 83 points. All told, four Knighthawks finished among the top 25 scorers, Mike Accursi in 16th place (23g, 48a) and Shawn Evans 25th (29g, 23a). Pat O'Toole started every game and finished with an 11.1 goals-against average and .775 save percentage, just behind Buffalo's Dietrich.
The Toronto Rock finished with the NLL's best record at 12-4, and 1998 NLL Rookie of the Year Colin Doyle broke the Gait-Tavares monopoly
to win his first scoring title with 42 goals and 111 points. The Rock were the only team other than the Knighthawks to place four shooters in the top 25, but overall they showed better, with Blaine Manning (39g, 66a) tied with Grant at 111 points, and Josh Sanderson, re-setting his season assist record at 71, neck-and-neck with JT at 102 points. Aaron Wilson occupied the 14th slot with 41 goals and 33 assists. Bob "Whipper" Watson was the fourth-best goalie in the League, statistically, with an 11.78 GAA and .757 SV%.
If there is one key player in this Friday night's showdown, it will be Toronto's Aaron Wilson. The former Jr. A Brave from Kitchener had a breakout season (although somewhat overshadowed in that department by Arizona's Dan Dawson), including 5 goals in the February pay-back game in Toronto. He has become fellow former Brave Colin Doyle's new dance partner. Not since Kim Squire has Doyle had such a line-mate, although the relationship is different this time: --- Doyle and Squire epitomized the two-man game, picking-and-rolling, giving-and-going, a box lacrosse pās de deux, while the Doyle-Wilson connection is best illustrated by the no-look pass, quick-stick finish by Wilson. The Rock must, however, hustle their offence off the floor consistently and minimize their transition exposure.
The more obvious key to Rochester's chances is John Grant. With his arsenal of shots and passes, and power moves to the cage, no Knighthawk is better equipped to exploit Bob Watson's relative weakness on outside shots, and break down Toronto's defensive schemes. Former Rock Steve Toll, who arrived late in the season as San Jose looked to next year, is perfectly positioned to pressure his former mates in transition; after all, his departure is the main cause of this rare chink in the Rock's defensive armor.
West Semi-Final - Arizona at Calgary
Before getting to this Division match-up, I want to take a look at last week-end's loss by Colorado. Since watching the game in Arizona, I have spoken with half-a-dozen friends and colleagues, all experienced players, coaches and officials themselves, who know the game of box lacrosse well, and we were unanimous - the failure of the Mammoth to advance rests with Gee Nash. His play in the fourth quarter against Dan Dawson and Craig Conn, particularly getting beat twice on the same move by Conn, snuffed any chance of the Mammoth to keep up the goal-for-goal pace and either hold the lead or force overtime. Moreso even than the three consecutive undisciplined penalties taken by Nick Carlson, Pat Coyle and John Gallant in the opening minutes of the final frame, which lead to two Arizona power play goals, Nash's collapse in goal ended the hopes of a Champion's Cup swan song for Gary Gait and newly-unretired brother Paul. Their dual presence, plus a 5-goal effort from Brian Langtry that was reminiscent of his 7-goal explosion, also in a losing cause, in the 2003 playoffs against the Rock, was not enough to carry the day. My advice to Steve Govett and Jamie Batley is, find yourselves the best available back-up tender, and the sooner the better, before any expansion draft materializes.
Arizona's Dan Dawson
At the other end of the floor, the Sting were at their best, getting 8-point performances from Craig Conn (5-3), Pat Maddalena (2-6) and Lindsay Plunkett (3-5), and 4 goals and 2 assists from the top candidate that I have seen this season for MVP, Dan Dawson. Mike Miron went the distance in goal, any shaky moments on his part more than compensated for by the offensive production; the defenders, with special mention to veterans Mark Cochrane and Captain Peter Lough, held Colorado's big guns, with the exception of the aforementioned Langtry, in check. This was an entertaining game, especially in the second half as the goal-trading and the drama intensified. The disappointment at the end, for Gary and Paul Gait, and their team-mates, was palpable and poignant. Equally emotional was the sense that this game represented a genuine point of passage, perhaps the first of the NLL era, with the Gary Gait's leave-taking set against the likes of rising stars Dawson and Conn.
As to how well the Sting match up against the incumbent champion Calgary Roughnecks, my short answer is, very well. This contest has the potential to be every bit as exciting as the showdown between the long-time rivals, Toronto and Rochester, but for some different reasons.
Calgary's Kaleb Toth
In this still-young NLL, the Sting are the new young upstarts, the role that the 'necks played to full advantage last year, the hard-to-hate underdogs lead by two of the new generation of pro indoor stars. Putting aside all of the statistical and past-performance factors that seem to make more sense in the context of the Rock-Knighthawks comparison, the relative firepower of Dawson and Conn versus Kelusky and Dowling, etc., my choice for the player to watch in this game is Lindsay Plunkett. A former OLA Junior A scoring champion, Plunkett, from the same Peterborough roots as John Grant, Shawn Evans, and 'zona team-mate Scott Self, only played in 19 games over three seasons since breaking into the NLL with Ottawa in 2002. 2005 is the first campaign in which he has played more than half a season, while commuting from St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His athletic preoccupation there has been varsity hockey, until this winter. His 2005 NLL scoring line shows 14 goals and 22 assists in 12 games, 11-19 in the second half of the season, including 3 goals and 2 assists in an 18-16 home win over Calgary on March 25th.
Remember what put Calgary over the top in last spring's playoffs, the outstanding play of goalie Curtis Palidwor, particularly in the final against Buffalo. With Dawson, Conn, Plunkett, Maddalena, Cory Bomberry and company fresh from their dismantling of Gee Nash and the Mammoth defence, Palidwor will have to replicate last year's heroics, because the Roughnecks are out-gunned in a shoot-out.
PLAYOFF PREVIEW: WHO WILL TAKE THE CUP?
The Toronto Rock returned to the top of the NLL in 2005, finishing at 10-4, including a 7-1 second half marred only by an embarrassing 20-12 blow-out in Calgary in the regular-season finale. This result typified one of their few weaknesses, as the Roughnecks took repeated advantage in transition, pushing the ball while the Rock offence got off the floor. They averaged a League-leading 14.2 goals per game, as Colin Doyle won his first individual scoring race with 42 goals and 69 assists, a full 6 points clear of team-mate Blaine Manning and Rochester's John Grant. Josh Sanderson re-set his season assist record at 71, and all three Rock attackers finished with more than 100 points.
The Buffalo Bandits finished one game back of Toronto, beating the Rock once, while the Rochester Knighthawks were third at 10-6, taking two from the Rock including a January 28th 15-6 laugher at the Air Canada Centre. Buffalo took the "I-90" season series 2-1, including a win in Rochester, while the two teams were the only ones in the NLL to score 20+ goals in a game --- Buffalo three times, including the highest-scoring game of the season, 23-16, March 11 in Minnesota, Rochester once, 20-11 at home March 26 against the same Swarm.
What does this all mean for the April 23rd East semi-final at the HSBC Arena?
Buffalo's Steve "Chugger" Dietrich edged out Rochester's Pat O'Toole atop the goalie standings, and the Bandits' offence scored 13.6 goals a game, second only to the Rock. Knighthawk scoring leader John Grant (49 goals, 56 assists) finished just ahead of John Tavares (43g, 59a) for second and third in the NLL respectively. Individual accomplishments aside, the Knighthawks haven't won a game in Buffalo in two seasons.
If it is a shoot-out, the Bandits have more guns, as their top six scorers - JT, Dan Teat, Mark Steenhuis, Jason Crosbie, Delby Powless Jr. and A.J. Shannon - all put up 20+ goals, while only Grant, Shawn Williams, Mike Accursi and Shawn Evans reached the same plateau for the K-hawks. Either of Dietrich and O'Toole can dominate opposition shooters, but if it comes down to their respective back-ups, Buffalo's Derek "Chico" General (2-1 in 209 minutes) has a big edge over Pat Campbell (1-0 in 53 minutes). Both defences are experienced, but the youth edge goes to Buffalo with the likes of Kyle Laverty, Greg Floris and Billy Dee Smith, all born in the 1980's. Steven Hoar is the only Rochester defender of similar vintage. The overall advantage goes to the Bandits in their own barn (where they should draw the biggest crowd of their season), provided of course that they don't self-destruct with undisciplined penalties, but Head Coach Darris Kilgour should be able to minimize that.
Buffalo's John Tavares
The League champion Calgary Roughnecks won the West with a 10-6 record, as the not-so-surprising Arizona Sting (9-7) made it interesting down to the finish, and the Colorado Mammoth under-achieved at 8-8. With the Roughnecks earning the bye, the Mammoth must migrate to the desert to face the Sting (Friday April 22, 10:30 p.m. Eastern time on The Score, 8:30 p.m. Mountain time on Altitude), to win a shot at the champs, and ultimately at a first Champions Cup for Gary and Paul Gait.
Arizona averaged a respectable 13.1 goals-per-game, lead by Dan Dawson's break-out season production of 48 goals and 36 assists, good for 7th overall. The Oakville, Ontario native who currently plays in the summer for the Brampton Excelsiors, is rumored to be the subject of the biggest bidding war of the off-season in the Western Lacrosse Association Senior major series in British Columbia. After losing Kasey Beirnes (30.0 goals per season as a pro, 32 last year in Arizona) for the season, Head Coach and GM Bob Hamley made several moves to shore up his offence, acquiring Jonas Derks from Buffalo in February, and adding Craig Conn from Minnesota and Chris Panos in March. Pat Maddalena continued his fine pro career, contributing 31 goals, including 13 on the power play and another 4 short-handed, and Cory Bomberry of Six Nations had his fifth straight pro season with 20 goals or more, matching his career high of 24. Captain Peter Lough and the ageless Mark Cochrane anchored a defence bolstered by the addition of Darryl Gibson, most recently from San Jose. While Mike "Tiny" Miron played most of the minutes in goal and was tagged with all seven losses, Ken "Monster" Montour put up a spotless 4-0 record in relief.
The late-season acquisition to end all late-season acquisitions goes to Colorado's General Manager Steve Govett, who coaxed Paul Gait out of retirement in an effort to bolster the prospects of the sagging Mammoth, who finished at an 8-8 .500 for the first time since the franchise was known as the Pittsburgh Crossefire in 2000 (co-incidentally, the last time that Gary and Paul Gait were re-united). Paul contributed 6 goals and 3 assists in 4 games, not to mention a lift that can only be explained by the empathy and synergy associated with identical twins. Gary Gait lead his team in scoring for the umpteenth time with 33 goals and 48 assists, while Gavin Prout added 28-and-50. Free agent Dan Stroup, signed before the dust had settled on the Vancouver Ravens, responded with the third 30-goal performance (31g, 10a) of his nine-season pro career, including 16 with the man advantage. Although these three were the only Mammoth attackers to exceed 20 goals, there were four more in double figures. Veteran Pat Coyle, another ex-Raven, quickly became more stalwart than role-player, perhaps a comment on the other, younger, veterans on "D" with the exception of John Gallant, while Mark Mayashita showed flashes of why Vancouver drafted him No. 1 overall in 2003. So what ailed the Mammoth?
Their special teams were respectable, over 40% for the power play, better than 60% for the penalty kill, Jamie Hanford won two of every three draws, and Gee Nash was just a tick or two behind Dietrich and O'Toole in the goalie stats. But the Mammoth had just two wins against four losses in 1- and 2-goal games, always a telling stat in the NLL, and their longest winning streak was three in a season where they lost their last three.
The Gaits together again
Nevertheless, I refuse to count them out. If Gary Gait says that they are just on the verge of putting it all together, I believe him. And Arizona Coach Bob Hamley has been slow at times to pull Miron when he was getting shelled. Here's how it could play out. The Mammoth chase Miron, but not before establishing a multi-goal advantage, Pat Coyle makes Dan Dawson pay dearly for one swim dodge too many, and Gary and Paul Gait re-discover their former magic. At least we get to watch this one on TV.
All photos from teams and team sites.