March 12, 2010

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NLL: Red-Hot Blazers Crash Parity Party

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

The Blazers' resurgence has a lot to do with a more assertive approach by reigning NLL MVP Dan Dawson.

Momentum is difficult to gain and sustain as the National Lacrosse League begins its stretch run.

In the East Division, Toronto (6-4) leads by a mere half-game over Orlando (4-3), Boston (5-4) and Rochester (5-4).

The Rock, amid an 0-3 skid, is coming off a loss to the Titans, while the Titans are fresh from a loss to Buffalo. Boston has won two consecutive games and Rochester dropped an overtime game to Edmonton its last time out.

In the West Division, Washington (6-3) holds a half-game edge over Edmonton (5-3) and Calgary (5-3). Will the Stealth regain their early-season swerve? After opening with a league-leading six-game win streak, injury-riddled Washington has suffered a slew of losses.

Meanwhile, the Rush and Roughnecks have crept into the playoff picture. Edmonton has a two-game winning streak, and defending champion Calgary has claimed four successive victories.

“The biggest thing that sticks out in everybody’s mind is the parity in this league," said Rock assistant coach Terry Sanderson. “It is like it has never been before. You take some pretty good guys from Portland, you disperse them through this league, and you don’t have to look any further than Edmonton to see how they improved. It makes for a much tougher game on any given night."

Even a team seemingly out of playoff contention, the 3-6 Buffalo Bandits, are a handful when superstars John Tavares and Mark Steenhuis are injury-free and the rest of the squad is at its best.

“Buffalo has been struggling, but they are a dangerous team," said Boston coach Tom Ryan. “Whenever you have a team that’s had varying performances, like the Bandits, you have to assume you’ll face a team firing on all cylinders and is hungry for a win."

The Blazers are coming off a bye week, a double-edged sword, given the positive aspect of healing injuries at the risk of losing a mental edge.

“I am confident that my teammates worked hard," said Boston captain Dan Dawson.

Dawson certainly burned the midnight oil -- at his day job.

To maintain his burgeoning firefighting career and his all-star level in the NLL, Dawson flew back to Toronto for the bye week and worked seven consecutive 14-hour shifts at the fire hall.

Upon his return to Boston, Dawson returned to lacrosse mode: training, stick skills and watching film of the Bandits’ upset of the Titans.

“I separate the two," he said. “When I’m at the fire hall, it is 100 percent fire fighting. And when I’m in Boston, it is 100 percent lacrosse."

The Buffalo film showed Tavares willing to do whatever it takes to win.

“He has been a franchise player for so many years and a main part of the power play, and now he’s on the penalty kill," Dawson said. “We are going to have to limit his opportunities and not let him dictate the game plan. We know he will get his goals. There is no way to shut him out."

As a team leader, Dawson will emphasize the importance of viewing the Bandits as a contending team, regardless of their record. Such perspective was lacking earlier in the season amid an 0-3 start.

“We got away from working hard," Dawson said. “We were a little bit overconfident showing up. We need to always outsmart and outwork opponents."

Dawson also changed his personal approach.

“The one thing I pride myself on is playing to the best of my ability any given night," he said. “The one thing I think happened was that I got a little bit too passive, looking to set guys up and not taking it to the net. The last couple games, I’ve had more emphasis on going to the net."
 
Still Believing

Buffalo will not go gently into that good night. Steenhuis put together a prodigious performance against Orlando last weekend, scoring six goals and setting up four others. Steenhuis began the game with a natural hat trick, en route to an 8-2 lead. The Titans rallied before falling 12-10.

Steenhuis earned  NLL Offensive and Overall Player of the Week honors.

Teammate Kyle Clancy was tabbed Rookie of the Week in recognition of his two goals and four assists. He set up the tying and go-ahead goals.

Due to injuries on the defensive end, forwards Brett Bucktooth and Jon Harasym are going out the back door. This weekend -- at Toronto on Friday night and Boston on Saturday night -- will determine whether Buffalo maintains its long shot of making the playoffs.

“We don’t need any more excuses," said assistant coach Duane Jacobs said. “Time has run out for us. We have to do it."

Short Shots

The clash in Calgary on Saturday night will make a deep impression on the West Division race. The host Roughnecks, on a four-game winning streak, meet the formerly-elite Stealth, who started the season with a six-game win streak, then dropped three consecutive games... Calgary goalkeeper Matt King is the NLL Defensive Player of the Week in honor of his 40-save effort against Philadelphia. King allowed only seven goals. Teammate Jeff Shattler scooped up 12 loose balls and scored two goals with one assist to earn the Transition Player of the Week award… Orlando’s Casey Powell leads the league with 3.14 goals per game, following his five-goal effort in the loss to Buffalo. Teammate Matt Vinc is 15 saves shy of 2,000 in his career. Transition star Jarret Park has missed three consecutive games due to an injured shoulder and is questionable for the weekend … When Rochester plays host to Orlando on Saturday, Knighthawks goaltender Pat O’Toole will bid to become the NLL’s all-time saves leader. O’Toole needs 33 saves to surpass Dallas Eliuk’s record of 6,536... Edmonton returns to Colorado for the second time this season, again marking Gavin Prout’s return to Pepsi Center, where he is beloved by fans. Prout, the Mammoth franchise scoring leader, was traded away in a youth movement. The Rush have flourished with Prout, among other new acquisitions. The Mammoth (2-6) have shown progress, but have yet to win a home game and are mired in a four-game losing streak.


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