Arizona Head Coach and GM Bob Hamley, 2005 NLL Coach and GM of the Year, and his squad travel to Denver's Pepsi Center this Saturday, with Portland scalps in their belts and a freshly-inked multi-year contract extension in his pocket. The fourth-seeded Sting burst the Lumberjax' expansion bubble last Saturday with a 14-11 win, on the strength of hat-tricks from Dan Dawson, Lindsay Plunkett, and a 41-save effort from Rob "Blazer" Blasdell.
Elliot Lake, Ontario is a hard-rock uranium mining town and the birthplace of the Calgary Roughnecks' Kevin Dostie. While teammate Jason Wulder got a last-minute reprieve from a suspension and responded with 2 goals and 3 assists, Dostie went critical in a career performance, scoring 5 goals and adding 4 assists, but he was matched by Colorado Mammoth Captain Gavin Prout, who also avoided a suspension to have a 12-point game (5 goals, 7 assists) and lead the Mammoth to an 18 - 17 overtime victory, their first play-off win for Head Coach Gary Gait.
The Saturday afternoon West Division showdown in the Mile-High City will be the fourth meeting this year between the Sting and the Mammoth, who took all three regular-season match-ups, including two in Arizona. The Mammoth's semi-final was their seventh victory of '06 at home, against two losses; the Sting are the defending Division champs, with a self-styled "built for the play-offs" line-up.
The Sting offence has lost Jason Crosbie to trade and Jonas Derks to petty larceny over the course of the '06 season, but Lindsay Plunkett (3g, 4a vs Portland) has been a welcome addition and rookie Matt Brown (2-2 in the same game) became an instant goal-a-game man. Veteran Curt Malawsky has also contributed. They take away defensive attention from Dan Dawson, Craig Conn and Pat Maddalena. Goalie Rob Blasdell was solid in posting the win in Portland.
Prout is clearly on a mission for the Mammoth, having willingly shouldered the leader's mantle with Gary Gait's retirement. Brian Langtry is the club's leader in post-season and game-winning goals, and the two hooked up for the OT winner against the Roughnecks. Gee Nash continues to struggle with his post-season form, but Chris Levis was more than up to the task when called upon; after Nash had allowed 3 Roughneck goals at the end of the first half and 2 more to start the second, Levis replaced him and the Mammoth went on a 4-goal run to regain the lead, until Dostie's last-minute heroics precipitated OT. Levis earned the win, allowing just 5 goals on 23 shots.
The Mammoth's Jamie Hanford was No. 2 in the League at over 62% in the face-off circle, while the Sting combo of Captain Peter Lough and Peter Veltman were under 50%. In Coach Gait's uptempo running game, transition defender Jay Jalbert scored 19 goals and added 29 assists. John Gallant is one of the hardest-working straight-up defenders in the League. And any one of Dan Stroup, Chris Gill or Ben Prepchuk are capable of a break-out goal-scoring performance. While Arizona did a good job last week of keeping Brodie Merrill and Portland's transition attack in check, there is not much any defender, or goalie, can do if one of more of Colorado's guns get hot. Langtry particularly, who put seven behind Toronto's Bob Watson a couple of seasons back in a losing cause in Paul Gait's last game, can score from virtually anywhere inside center.
The Sting attack can keep pace with the Mammoth, but I don't think that Blasdell and the D can consistently hold the Colorado offence at bay, although their penalty kill can certainly counter-attack --- in partial penance for his team-leading 42 penalty minutes, Craig Conn scored 5 short-handed goals, as did Chris Seller. But Colorado had the second-best power play this winter behind Buffalo, and added 10 SHG's of their own.
I think that the Mammoth can successfully make this a run-and-gun shootout, stretching the floor and the Sting defence and opening things up inside. The Sting scorers have been consistent all season, but this game will very likely come down to some key possessions late in the game, and I like Colorado's chances better.
Rochester Knighthawks vs Buffalo Bandits
After the Toronto Rock brought the proverbial knife to a gunfight at the Blue Cross Arena last week-end, Head Coach Ed Comeau has to be liking his chances, after a shocking 11-2 second half gave his side the 16 - 8 win and a trip to the East final in Buffalo. John Grant Jr. (5 goals, 1 assist) and Shawn Williams (3g, 2a) accounted for half of the total, and Pat O'Toole stopped 46 of 54 Rock shots for the win. Colin Doyle was held to a single goal, while Aaron Wilson and Blaine Manning could do no better than an assist each for Toronto, while Bob "Whipper" Watson had a horrendous night in goal --- once the second-half deluge had started, there was no point even in pulling him in favor of Phil Wetherup.
Down the Interstate in Buffalo, the Minnesota Swarm made things very interesting on a Sunday afternoon, outscoring the Bandits 6-4 in the second half, 3-1 in the fourth, but that one was the game winner, as Mark Steenhuis, after taking a pass from John Tavares and watching JT get clobbered in front of the Swarm net, circled the crease and jogged up-floor all the way to the restraining line, then stepped in and cranked one past Mat Disher's right shoulder for the game-winner. Steve Dietrich was stellar between the pipes for Buffalo, stopping 49 of 59 shots on goal, and shutting out Minnesota for the last 3:09 of the game.
Buffalo and Rochester know each other all too well. Buffalo has been the premiere offensive team in the second half of the schedule, and Dietrich should win his second consecutive Goalie of the Year award, posting the only goals-against average in the NLL under 10 a game. Even if the two opposing offensive and defensive squads battle each other to a standstill, "Chugger" should make the difference. Even in a 'battle of the back-ups' the Bandits have the edge with Ken "Monster" Montour over Rochester's lightly-played rookie Grant Crawley. Interestingly enough, both are former Six Nations Jr. A Arrows.
Statistically, the Bandits have the edge on special teams as well. Rochester's defence will miss the veteran Pat Cougevan's big-game experience, and Marshall Abrams has been out of the line-up since being scratched from the All Star Game. On the other back door, Buffalo's D will put considerably more pressure on the ball than the Rock were able to muster.
John Tavares has never had a stronger supporting cast that this year's corps of attackers. I expect the Champion's Cup to make the trip to HSBC Arena in Buffalo in another week's time; --- whether or not it will stay there until 2007 can be better determined after we've seen the Division finals.
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