August 20, 2012

Four Teams, Two Days, One Major League Lacrosse Champion

* Eight Big Questions for Championship Weekend

by Phil Shore | LaxMagazine.com

The Chesapeake Bayhawks lost two of their final two regular season games, but boast arguably the most balanced team in the league, writes Phil Shore. Denver, Boston and Long Island will also compete for the MLL title this weekend at Harvard Stadium.
©Trevor Brown

Major League Lacrosse Championship Weekend will descend on Harvard Stadium in Cambridge, Mass. this weekend with four teams vying for the league title. The top-seeded Denver Outlaws will take on the No. 4 seed Long Island Lizards at 1 p.m. Saturday followed by the second-seeded Chesapeake Bayhawks taking on the No. 3 seed and defending champion Boston Cannons at approximately 4 p.m. The winners of those two games will meet in the championship tilt Sunday at 3 p.m.

Here's how each team looks heading into the big games:

No. 1 Denver Outlaws (11-3)

Leading scorers: Brendan Mundorf (32g, 27a); Jeremy Sieverts (26g, 7a); Peet Poillon (24g, 13a)

Faceoff: Anthony Kelly (58.4-percent with Denver, 53.6-percent for the season)

Goalie: Jesse Schwartzman (11.03 GAA, .540)

How they got here: The Outlaws finished the regular season with a 15-13 victory over the Chesapeake Bayhawks to earn the No. 1 seed. The victory was the team's sixth consecutive win and its eighth in nine games. The rookies have stepped up and veterans Mundorf and Schwartzman have come up huge.

Why they can win: Denver has an incredible offense. They led the league in scoring this year with 216 goals and have a deep roster of playmaking attackmen and midfielders, like Mundorf, Sieverts, Poillon, Jordan McBride and rookie Mark Matthews said.

"MC Hammer was quoted recently after watching a little bit of the Outlaws offense and he said, 'Can't touch this,'" former Outlaw Nolan Godfrey said.

Denver's defense, while not as hyped as its offense, has quietly been strong. The Outlaws have given up the second-fewest goals in the league.

They're the hottest team in the league right now, playing their best lacrosse at a very opportune time. They also have the best away record in the league (6-1).

Why they can lose: The target is on the Outlaws' back. They, along with the defending champion Cannons, who are playing at home, have the most to lose right now and the pressure could be too much. The Outlaws have been the playoffs each of the seven years they've existed in MLL, but have yet to win the championship.

Also, Anthony Kelly has been a revelation for the Outlaws since a midseason trade. Denver is fifth in the league right now in faceoff winning percentage (47.7 percent) but take away Kelly's 87 faceoff wins out of 149 attempts with Denver and the Outlaws success drops to 42.0 percent, which would put them at seventh in the league. The problem is Kelly has fought through several injuries this season. Should another freak injury occur or Kelly's body wears down the Outlaws would be in a lot of trouble against any of these teams with very strong faceoff units.

Words from the opposition: "That's a very talented offensive team and you have to cover them for 60 minutes," Chesapeake Bayhawks head coach Dave Cottle said.

No. 2 Chesapeake Bayhawks (10-4)

Leading scorers: Kyle Dixon (21g, 12a); Steven Brooks (23g, 10a); Michael Kimmel (22g, 11a)

Faceoff: Adam Rand (53.6 percent), Alex Smith (50.0 percent)

Goalies: Kip Turner (10.51 GAA, .544); TC DiBartolo (10.07, .564)

How they got here: The Bayhawks boast arguably the most balanced team in the league. They are third in goals for (first in 2-point goals scored), first in goals against and fourth in faceoff winning percentage. They lost two of their final three games to slide to the second seed, but offseason veteran additions such as Drew Westervelt, John Grant Jr., Briand Spallina, Nicky Polanco and Kip Turner have paid huge dividends for this team on a mission.

Why they can win: No team shoots the 2-point shot better than Chesapeake and no player shoots from beyond the arc better than Kyle Dixon. His 15 2-point goals set an MLL record, breaking one that he previously set himself. The 2-point shot capabilities mean that Chesapeake is always in the game and the team can really make opponents pay for penalties.

Turner has been strong between the pipes for Chesapeake. He holds the league's best goals against average and second-best save percentage.

Why the can lose: Penalties. Spallina (18 minutes) and Polanco (12.5 minutes) are first and second, respectively, in the league in penalty minutes. And neither played in all 14 games. The Bayhawks are third in the league in penalty killing percentage but if they continue to tempt fate and go a man-down against the elite teams in the league they will get burned.

Words from the opposition: "This team simply executes with precision and consistency. Losing to Denver [to end the regular season] couldn't have come at a better time as it will incite a riot of passion in each Bayhawk player," Godfrey said.

2012 MLL Championship Weekend

at Harvard Stadium, Boston

Semifinals, Aug. 25

No. 1 Denver vs. No. 4 Long Island, 1 p.m. (ESPN2)

No. 2 Chesapeake vs. No. 3 Boston, Approx. 4 p.m.
(CBS Sports Network)

Championship, Aug. 26

3 p.m. (ESPN2)

No. 3 Boston Cannons (9-5)

Leading scorers: Paul Rabil (27g, 38a); Ryan Boyle (19g, 39a); Kevin Buchanan (31g, 10a)

Faceoff: Chris Eck (58.5 percent); John Ortolani (61.1 percent)

Goalie: Jordan Burke (11.26 GAA, .536)

How they got here: Boston started the season with a dominating four-game winning streak. They lost five of their next seven to put a potential playoff berth—where they would defend their title on their home field—in jeopardy. But the Cannons ended the season on a three-game winning streak that started with a victory over then league-leading Bayhawks. It was a struggle to get here, with the target on Boston's back, but now that the champs have joined the party you cannot count them out.

Why they can win: They are the defending champions returning the majority of the core of last season's successful squad. They have arguably the best player in the league in Paul Rabil. The offense is so deep, with players like Rabil, Ryan Boyle, Kevin Buchanan, Matt Poskay and Ari Sussman. In fact, this group is so strong they swept the individual scoring titles: Rabil set the MLL record for most points in a season, Poskay led the league in goals and Boyle led the league in assists. They have championship experience and skill.

Why they can lose: The defense is aging a bit and hasn't been as consistent this season as in years past. Boston was still third in the league in fewest goals allowed, but some games, especially in some losses, they've given up a large amount of scores. Jordan Burke's goals against average rose this season and his save percentage dropped almost 10 percentage-points.

The Cannons also are seventh in the league in 2-point goals scored. The playoff games are expected to be intense, close affairs and Boston will face Chesapeake, the league leader in 2-point goals with nearly three times as many as Boston. In a close game an extra point or two could prove extremely crucial to the outcome.

Words from the opposition: "Chris [Eck] and I battle hard and often," said Long Island Lizards faceoff specialist Greg Gurenlian. "Every time we play each other it looks like both of us score a goal and we kill each other. I have such respect for him and his game and I always look forward to playing against him."

No. 4 Long Island Lizards (8-6)

Leading scorers: Max Seibald (24g, 11a); Brian Langtry (23g, 12a); Matt Gibson (18g, 15a)

Faceoff: Greg Gurenlian (60.2 percent)

Goalie: Drew Adams (11.91 GAA, .520)

How they got here: The Lizards backed into the playoffs, losing their final two games of the season. But well-timed long winning streaks earlier in the season kept Long Island far enough ahead in the standings that the team was able to stay in the top four.

Award-winning performances from head coach Joe Spallina and rookie attackman Matt Gibson have propelled the surprising Lizards well past pre-season expectations.

Why they can win: The Lizards are playing with house money. This season was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but the rookies (Gibson, Tommy Palasek, C.J. Costabile and Will Mangan) have made big contributions immediately. If they can maintain a high-level of play despite the magnitude of the stage and Greg Gurenlian can go into "beast mode" and dominate at the faceoff X and push possession in Long Island's favor—thus limiting the time Denver's potent offense has the ball—Long Island has a shot to score the upset.

Why they can lose: The offense cannot go cold. In three of the team's six losses—including the past two—the Lizards have scored fewer than 10 goals. In the last three losses Seibald has scored only three goals and has one assist. In the first seven games of the season (when the Lizards played each playoff team once) Stephen Peyser went scoreless five times, including games against Denver, Chesapeake and Boston. If the rookies struggle to match the intensity required to compete in the MLL playoffs, the veterans will need to step up or else Long Island won't be able to keep pace with the deep offenses the three other teams boast.

Words from the opposition: "I saw a team that played with a lot of energy, played within their system," Boston Cannons head coach Steve Duffy said. "They played with a lot of excitement. They played with a lot of excitement around their faceoff guy, around their goalie, and that's infectious... They've got some young, dynamic kids that have come in and made an instant impact for them."


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