April 5th, 1997, the Buffalo Bandits defeated the New York Saints in front of 12,115 fans in the Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo, in the semi-final game of what would be the last season of the Major Indoor Lacrosse League. This was the last time that an NYC team appeared in the pro indoor post-season.
The 10th anniversary season of the National Lacrosse League unfolded quickly, once the threat of a non-season was averted. A resurgent Philadelphia Wings squad, and the arrivistes Minnesota Swarm, sprinted off to 6 - 0 starts; the Buffalo Bandits battled a plague of injuries, while an increasingly rudderless Toronto Rock saw their head coach suspended after the opening game, to sit for four more. The reigning champion Rochester Knighthawks got off to a shaky start from which they never recovered, and would ultimately miss the post-season, and the Chicago Shamrox took a slightly different route than last winter to a second consecutive 6 - 10 finish.
The New York Titans, looking to improve on a last-place 4 - 12 performance in 2007, started 2008 at an inauspicious 1 - 4, but finished at 10 - 6 and in third place in the East, closing the regular season with a 4 - 0 flourish, and after eleven winters, a team from the Big Apple will compete again for a pro indoor lacrosse title.
I spoke at some length this week with Titans Head Coach Mueller, about how the Titans have achieved this level of competitiveness and respectability is such a relatively short time. He was quick to credit his coaching staff and scouting network with identifying and finding the players who have "bought into the system" (not making too much at all of the fact that he is the designer of that system). He was equally quick, though I did not raise it with him, to dispute the conclusion of several of my NLL journalistic "colleagues" that he set out to assemble an 'American' roster. Let's look at that line-up.
From their very first NLL game, the Titans have been able to score. Last season they finished comfortably in the top half of the League with 195 goals, and they finished this season with 197, tied for fourth with Rochester, behind Philadelphia, Buffalo and Minnesota. More tellingly, the New York power-play lead the NLL with 60 goals. They got 19 of those from Mike McLellan, who had his best pro season, in fact his best box lacrosse season including Ontario Lacrosse Association (OLA) Junior A and Major Series, with 34 goals, good for seventh spot tied with Buffalo's Mark Steenhuis. Mueller credits current Colorado Mammoth Head Coach Bob McMahon with originally recommending McLellan. Veterans Casey Powell, with 32 goals, and Pat Maddalena with 85 points, also had career-best NLL seasons.
First-round draft choice Jordan Hall contributed 24 goals, and veteran free agent Jamie Hanford (a Connecticut resident whose Manhattan job and recent engagement made the cross-country commute to Denver less and less attractive) is still the all-time best at the face-off X. Third-year pro Matt Vinc was solid in goal, earning nine of the Titans' wins with a respectable .770 save percentage, and Coach Mueller credits veteran back-up Erik Miller with helping Vinc with his preparation. The Titans' "D" has improved with the addition of former Rock Patrick Merrill.
As to Adam Mueller's help with game planning and preparation, Assistant Coach Blane Harrison deserves some special mention. He is a former MILL Detroit Turbo team-mate, and a fellow Michigan State alumnus who also coached Mueller there. He won a couple of Mann Cups playing for Canadian Hall of Fame coach Pete Vipond's Brooklin (Ontario) Redmen in the '80's, so he's got the box lacrosse chops. And he now resides in New Jersey, where Mueller's business is based.
The Titans have to travel one more time to the Twin Cities, where they lost twice this winter to Coach Duane "Dewey" Jacobs (another former Detroit Turbo) and his Swarm. Minnesota was also Mueller's second head-coaching gig, after starting out behind the bench in Philadelphia with the unenviable task of succeeding Tony Resch. 'Minny' weathered a mid-season slump after their torrid 6 - 0 start, and only lost twice at home. With young gun Andy Secore back from injury, as well as trade-deadline acquisition Dan Marohl, the offence is pretty much back at full strength. The Swarm are coming off a reverse home-and-home split with Chicago, compared to the Titans' 4 - 0 finish.
The Buffalo Bandits finished atop the NLL East, and will face the Philadelphia Wings for the third time in 2008, after a 15 - 14 loss in Philly in January, and a 21 - 12 reversal in Buffalo on March 1st. The only thing is that Athan Ianucci got 4 goals in both those games, enroute to his new NLL single-season record 71. Transition and draw-man extraordinaire Geoff Snider broke Rock Captain Jim Veltman's season record for loosies in Scoop's career-closing game. Buffalo tender Mike Thompson took the one-goal loss to the Wings, and got chased by five straight game-opening goals before giving way to Ken Montour in the re-match. "Monster" just might get this start. Buffalo finished 3 - 1 with just a meaningless loss (at least as far as the standings were concerned) in Rochester, while the Wings finished 2 - 2 with losses to the Swarm and the Titans.
With the way the Titans are playing right now, the game in Minneapolis could easily go to OT, in which case the advantage will be to Hanford and New York. Buffalo's seven home wins compare favorably with Philadelphia's 3 - 5 road performance, and the Bandits are the hotter team: advantage Bandits.
Changing of the Guard in the West
Parity may not have been quite so rampant in the NLL West, where the top two, not four, teams had to go to tie-breakers to decide seedings, but for the first time since the Albany Attack franchise was re-located four seasons ago, the San Jose Stealth have lived up to expectations (mine at least), finishing atop the 'expansion' division. Johnny Mouradian's boys have finally made good on their individual and collective promise.
Mouradian built championship teams, in tandem with his good friend, the late Les Bartley, in Buffalo and Toronto, but certainly not overnight. He is also responsible for bringing to pro indoor lacrosse such top talent as Colin Doyle, the NLL's first Rookie of the Year, goalie Anthony Cosmo, and All-World scorer Jeff Zywicki, not to mention coach / mentor and living legend Bobby Allan.
Earning the top seed for the 2008 play-offs gets the Stealth an opening-round home date with the Brodie Merrill and the Portland Lumberjax, themselves in the process of re-living the early promise of their 11 - 5 Division-winning debut in 2006. After a sophomore-jinx 4 - 12, last-place finish in '07, the 'Jax, sporting their totally distinctive plaid-work-shirt jerseys around the League, earned the last Western play-off slot with a less-than-stellar 6 - 10 season, but should be encouraged by two out of three wins over the Stealth in the second half of their schedule.
In the other quarter-final, the Colorado Mammoth, who have battled their own peculiar brand of inconsistency again this winter, will host a Calgary Roughnecks side beset by that most confounding of athletic injuries, concussion syndrome, to their key players, tender Steve "Chugger" Dietrich and Captain Tracy Kelusky. Kelusky missed rourhly the middle third of the season, bit returned to the line-up for a March 8 15 - 12 home win over Portland. Chugger started the season 1 - 2, but would only return to the floor for a Game 14 win over Edmonton. General Manager Kurt Silcott acquired veteran Pat Campbell to shore up the goal-tending, then made a deadline blockbuster deal that brought Josh Sanderson West just days after Kelusky went back for another, shorter, stay on the Injured Reserved List. It cost the Roughnecks the goal-scoring services of Lewis Ratcliff, but Sanderson made an immediate impact, with 6 goals and 8 assists in the final four games (Ratcliff didn't miss a beat either, contributing 13 goals and 15 assists in Toronto and finishing tied with John Grant Jr. and Gavin Prout for second place in the League individual points race, but the Rock still missed the play-offs).
The San Jose Stealth were my pre-season pick to win the West, and I'm sticking with them over the Lumberjax. I have always been a Tracy Kelusky fan, and I'm going with him and the Roughnecks over the Mammoth, but it will be a close one, likely in front of the biggest crowd so far this season.
Broadcast Information for Divisional Semifinal Games
Friday, May 2: Philadelphia at Buffalo, 7:30PM ET. Online game broadcast at NLL.com. Live radio coverage on Buffalo station AM 550 WGR starts at 7:00PM with a 30-minute pre-game show.
Saturday, May 3: New York at Minnesota, 8:00PM ET/7:00PM CT, Online game broadcast at NLL.com.
Calgary at Colorado, 9:00PM ET/7:00PM MT. The Calgary-Colorado game airs live on Altitude (DirecTV 644/DISH Network 410). Fans in Calgary can watch the game on Shaw TV at 10:30 PM MT (Tape Delay). The game also airs live on SIRIUS Satellite Radio channel 143. Online game broadcast at NLL.com.
Sunday, May 4: Portland at San Jose, 6:00PM ET/3:00PM PT. The Portland-San Jose game airs live on CSN West (DirecTV 656/DISH Network 409). Online game broadcast at NLL.com.
May 1, 2008
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