August 26, 2011

Boston-Chesapeake Breakdown: Can the Cannons Forget the Past?

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Paul Rabil was held pointless in last year's semifinal by a Bayhawks defensive effort led by Kyle Hartzell. Hartzell said ideally Chesapeake would limit Rabil to one or two goals Saturday. "Limiting his space when he's catching the ball is key," Hartzell said.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

The top-seeded Boston Cannons (9-3) face the fourth-seeded and homestanding Chesapeake Bayhawks (6-6) at noon Saturday (ESPN2) at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in the first game of Major League Lacrosse's three-game championship weekend in Annapolis, Md. This first semifinal is an identical matchup to last year's first semifinal, won by Chesapeake, 13-9, in an upset of Boston. Will it happen again?

Here a few angles to think about heading into the game. Come back to LaxMagazine.com for a preview of the other MLL semifinal between the Denver Outlaws and Hamilton Nationals.

What the Cannons Have Going for Them

They are probably the most balanced and dangerous team in the league. They have the two players who have won the last three MVP awards, Paul Rabil and Matt Poskay on offense. They have the two players who tied for second for the league's defensive player of the year in Kyle Sweeney and Mitch Belisle, who finished in voting only behind Brodie Merrill, perhaps the best defender ever to play in MLL. And they have a strong goalie in Jordan Burke, who some feel was snubbed by finishing in second in the goalie of the year race to Long Island's Drew Adams.

What the Cannons Need to Overcome

History. The Cannons need to forget the past. They are the last remaining Original Six franchise to have not won a championship, and were most recently bounced in last year's playoffs as the No. 1 seed by these very Bayhawks they are scheduled to face.

What the Bayhawks Have Going for Them

Well, they've been here before. Last year, the Bayhawks were the four seed in the playoffs and upended top-ranked Boston in Saturday's first semifinal in Annapolis. This is Take 2. "Our key core guys have been there last year," defenseman Kyle Hartzell said. "We know what it takes to win." Also, attackman Danny Glading has been the one constant for the Bayhawks this year, leading the team with 23 goals and 18 assists. He may have been my pick for most improved player, had I had a vote.

What the Bayhawks Need to Overcome

Few observers would say Chesapeake is a playoff-caliber team based on its results this season, but with four teams making the postseason in a six team league, they earned a chance to defend their title despite a 6-6 record. Coach Brendan Kelly has repeatedly said this team is best when it's back is against the wall, and it is again with this matchup. Boston beat the Bayhawks 17-10 and 17-13 in their two regular-season meetings.

Matchup To Watch

M Paul Rabil vs. D Kyle Hartzell

To highlight the matchup of the best offensive player in the game against the defender who will cover him is admittedly cliché. But it's important.

"A lot of our offense goes through me, whether it's initiating dodges on offense or playing a role off-ball where I'm demanding some attention from other defenders, and opening up lanes for other offensive players," Rabil said of guys such as quarterback Ryan Boyle, Matt Poskay and Max Quinzani.

Hartzell said the goal is to limit Rabil to one or two goals. Last year Rabil had zero points with Hartzell drawing the primary defensive assignment. He made it tough for the now two-time league MVP to do much when he touched the ball. This season Rabil had 12 points in two games against the Bayhawks, including a five-goal, two-assist outing back in Week 2.

"He's still getting better, and I'm still learning how to guard him," Hartzell said of Rabil. "He's the best midfielder in the game. It's hard when he gets a run at you. I was successful last year as he was catching the ball, being right up on his hip. Not giving him much space to work with. The first game [with Boston] this season was my first game coming back off the indoor season. He got the best of me that weekend. I was letting him run at me. He's a big, fast, strong middie, if you let him run downhill at you, you don't have much room and time to get up in him and cross check him. Limiting his space when he's catching the ball is key."

Faceoff specialist Alex Smith has played through an injured elbow ligament since the middle of the season and will be tested against Boston's Chris Eck, who also battled an injury toward the end of the regular season.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Rabil and Hartzell are more than familiar with each other. At times they train together in the Baltimore area and they are teammates indoors with the NLL's Washington Stealth.

X-Factor

G Jordan Burke, Boston

We've seen time and time again that a hot goaltender can mask or make up for deficiencies all over the field, or just boost an already strong team. Just last year Chris Garrity stepped up and helped Chesapeake to the title. Burke can be that guy. In this game last year, Kip Turner was pulled midgame in favor of Burke. The worst case scenario would be for Boston to be forced to make the switch to Tuner this time. Best case is that Burke plays as he had all season, as a player worthy of MLL Goalie of the Year (even though he didn't win). Burke finished the regular season second in the league in GAA (10.60) and first in save percentage by a wide margin (.615). Honorable mention X-factor: Cannons midfielder Kevin Buchanan.

Miscellaneous

The faceoff battle pits a pair of banged up specialists against each other. An injured rib caused Chris Eck to miss several games toward the end of the regular season, but he returned for the Cannons' season finale. The Bayhawks' Alex Smith has played through an injured elbow ligament since the middle of the season.

Boston can win if...

It plays its game, gets multiple offensive players involved and some production from players not named Rabil and Boyle. If the Cannons can create some chances in transition that will surely help. And most importantly, they can't let the ghosts of playoff failures past catch up with them.

"We didn't execute," last year, Rabil said. "We were potentially overhyped in the locker room. We have to work on staying composed and confident, and doing the things were able to do successfully in the regular season."

Chesapeake can win if...

Alex Smith and wingmen can dominate faceoffs, the team finds at least some offensive balance among the attack and midfield, and they are able to stick with one goaltender the whole game. Chris Garrity and Brian Phipps have split time under various circumstances in the latter part of the season. One goalie for 60 minutes means things aren't going terribly wrong.


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