August 26, 2011

Denver-Hamilton: Will Nationals' Youth Be Served?

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Related: Boston-Chesapeake Preview

Scott Rodgers allowed 18 goals to the Outlaws in Week 1 and is eager to find redemption against Denver in a final four setting. "Playing back-to back games kind of brings you back two years for me [at Notre Dame] when we went to the national championship," Rodgers said.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Saturday's second Major League Lacrosse semifinal, scheduled for 3 p.m. at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, pits the second-seeded Denver Outlaws (7-5) against the third-seeded Hamilton Nationals (7-5).

Denver clobbered Hamilton by eight goals each in two regular season games, but those were both in Week 1 and Week 5 when the Nationals' large group of rookies were still adjusting to the league. Hamilton, by many accounts, is a vastly improved group. They traded away John Grant Jr., changed the makeup of their offense, won six out of their last eight games and have been boosted by the late-season arrival of veteran Casey Powell. Denver, meanwhile, endured a midseason four-game losing streak and have had six season-ending injuries, the most in franchise history. But they may have finally found their mojo as well, with a consistent lineup for the first time the last two weeks of the regular season.

There's a decent chance this game is attempted to be played in hurricane or tropical storm conditions. That would be, um, a major factor for everyone involved. On to the breakdown:

What the Outlaws Have Going for Them

Defense. Denver allowed just 10.5 goals per game this season, a great number, despite losing defensive leader Eric Martin to a year-ending collar bone injury midseason. Players and head coach Tom Slate give assistant coach Tony Resch and his simple, but effective system the credit.

"We only have two slide packages, they're simple but the way they are designed has been so effective," goaltender Jesse Schwartzman said. "[Resch] gets you excited to play defense. It's almost a college-style defense. We funnel people to where I want to see shot. The scheme forces people to the right spot. If everyone is on the same page, six guys are moving together and when one guy makes a move the other five are moving to cover up. When it clicks it's pretty to see." Maryland rookie Brett Schmidt has played as well as a rookie can in place of the injured Martin this season, and Lee Zink continues to be a stalwart.

What the Outlaws Need to Overcome

Like Boston, history. But unlike Boston, more history. Denver has been to the playoffs five times — this is six, good for every year of the team's existence — and has yet to win a title. Former coach Brian Reese stepped down as coach, but remained general manager, after the playoff exit last year — an upset loss to Long Island in the semifinals — to shake things up a bit. "It would mean the world," Schwartzman said of winning a title. "We've all sacrificed this summer more than ever. We've fought hard. Our organization treats us professionally and the people of Denver and our fans are phenomenal. Bringing home a title would be the best way to thank them."

What the Nationals Have Going for Them

Chemistry. Hamilton's deservedly ballyhooed rookie class — Jeremy Boltus, Kevin Crowley, David Earl, etc. — has blended well with veterans like Joe Walters, Brodie Merrill, Sol Bliss, and later Casey Powell. And the Canadian/American mix has been to fun to watch. "The biggest surprise to me is how well this team has come together and really cares about each other," Nationals coach Regy Thorpe said. "It all comes down to leadership. Although we're fairly young, we do have a lot of guys with playoff experience."

What the Nationals Need to Overcome

Denver's man-up unit. The Outlaws converted 35.29 percent of their man-up chances, just percentage points out of first place in the league in that category. Hamilton has been man-down 58 times, just three times behind league leading Long Island (61). Yet the Nationals also led the league in penalty killing (77.59 percent). One more stat: Hamilton was penalized 11 times in the Week 1 meeting of these two times, but goaltender Scott Rodgers, in net for that game, said the team has become more mature and composed since then. He also said Denver's man-up unit was especially dangerous. "You have Max [Seibald] and Peet [Poillon] outside shooting, Drew Westervelt on the top right sweet spot and Mundorf able to wraparound. They have shifty players," he said.

Matchup to Watch

M Brendan Mundorf vs. D Kyle Rubisch

Mundorf, who earlier in the season was an MVP candidate before he went through a rough patch of games, had 18 points in two games — yes, 18 points — against the Nationals this season. Although the entire Denver front line with Westervelt and Billy Bitter is threatening, limiting Mundorf is a priority. Look for Kyle Rubisch, Hamilton's top cover defenseman, to draw the assignment. Rubisch may be more well-known to box lacrosse fans. The Ontario native was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 NLL draft by the Boston Blazers out of Dowling on Long Island. He's a steady, fundamentally sound defenseman who won't show a ton of flash.

Brendan Mundorf, who scored 18 points in two games against the Nationals this season, will likely draw the coverage of Hamilton long pole Kyle Rubisch. Rubisch was a short stick defender the last time the Outlaws and Nationals met.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

"When we played them last Rubisch was playing with a short pole. He's been playing a lot of long pole now," Denver coach Tom Slate said. "I thought he did a pretty good job on [Matt] Danowski [the last week of the regular season]. With that little reverse over the head check he does. It slows a guy down. I gotta think they'll try that. You have to stop Mundy on our team first."

Slate also mistakenly called Rubisch, "Rubbish," like the trash, on a conference call this week. He could take that as a dig, or just a simple mistake because he's not garbage.

"Rubisch is maybe the most underrated player I've seen on the defensive end," Rodgers said. "He's been shutting down some top guys all year. He reminds me of our defense at Notre Dame, in the way coach [Gerry] Byrne would limit those guys from throwing garbage checks. He plays great fundamental defense. He gets to his spot, he takes away the top side. He gets the ball off the ground, great stick, underrated pretty much."

X-factor

M Casey Powell, Hamilton

Powell told me before his arrival in Hamilton for the last two games of the regular season that he didn't plan on coming in and being a "superstar," but he wanted to fit in with the pieces the Nationals already had in place on offense. It seems that is what the MLL's all-time points leader has done.

Powell only had one point in the Nationals finale against Long Island, but "he was drawing a lot of attention, which freed up Kevin Crowley, David Earl and Cody Jamieson," Hamilton coach Regy Thrope said. "He's been great. If you watch the game, he creates a lot of opportunities with second assists." In his first game back after a nearly three-year MLL absence, the 35-year-old Powell had four points and was said to be inspiring teammates with his hustle.

And who would really be surprised if Powell himself came up with a big performance in these playoffs? At the very least his presence opens up more chances for someone unlikely to have a breakout game. Kevin Crowley hasn't had one of those yet. Maybe now?

Honorable mention X-factor: The dynamic Brodie Merrill, but you already knew that.

Miscellaneous

This game, the second semifinal on Saturday, based on this amateur meteorologist's prediction, might be most impacted by Hurricane Irene. Nationals coach Regy Thorpe was asked what the most important thing to focus on is during a storm. He said communication and hearing the echoes of instruction from the sideline, and then ironically his phone became inaudible. ... Denver midfielder Casey Cittadino is cleared to play despite breaking his arm in mid-June. The team was to decide at practice Friday if he actually will play. ... Rodgers only played in the first meeting with Denver because of flight issues before the second meeting. He gave up 18 goals in the game he did play. "That was the highest I ever gave up in my career in any lacrosse game," Rodgers said. "I'm excited to get out there." It's also Rodgers' first time back in a final four setting since his run with Notre Dame to the NCAA national title game in 2010, when he was named tournament most outstanding player despite being on the losing team. "Playing back-to back games kind of brings you back two years for me when we went to the national championship," Rodgers said. "If you're seeing the ball as a goalie and you don't have to wait a week to get back into it to wait for another game, you can kind of go right off that momentum and get that big first save to start yourself off."

Denver can win if...

It creates and converts a few chances in transition, and at some point creates favorable matchups for midfielders Max Seibald and Peet Poillon. Seibald plays like the "Old Max," Denver has been looking for since undergoing preseason knee surgery. The attack should gets points, but maybe Billy Bitter and Drew Westervelt each have top-notch performances to make it special.

Hamilton can win if...

It executes its 6-on-6 offense well, while smartly pushing in transition at times with Brodie Merrill. "We need to possess the ball. We don't want to get into too many transition battles," Rodgers said. "We know how Brodie plays so it won't hurt us to play a little bit of transition, but we like to play 6v6 and let those guys do their thing. We're pretty hard to defend there."


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