April 1, 2014

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NLL Notebook: Philadelphia, Toronto Set to Duke it Out

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Stevens Archive

After a tough start, Philadelphia is in the mix for a playoff spot as the season enters its final month. (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

Philadelphia players are loving what they see when they look at the NLL standings this week.

There it is in black and white: Philadelphia and Toronto all even in third place in the NLL East. The Wings, after a seemingly endless struggle to get back into contention, have a playoff berth within their grasp.

''We are obviously pumped to see that,'' says Jordan Hall. ''Knowing that if we play well we are in control of our own destiny gives us a big boost.''

A 5-9 record is nothing to boast about but every team is equal once playoffs begin. Get in and the sky is the limit. Come May, six teams will have equal opportunities to win the championship.

''I think we still have a lot to improve on but playing with a do-or-die attitude seems to make us a better team,'' says Hall. ''Everyone seems more focused on every play and winning those small battles seems to be the difference right now.''

Philadelphia has won its last two games while Toronto has lost five of its last six.

What's left for both teams:

This weekend: Philadelphia is at home against Calgary (8-5) and Toronto is at Vancouver (4-9).

April 12: Philadelphia is at Toronto. The teams split their first two meetings so the winner of this one will have the standings tiebreaker should they finish the regular season with identical records.

April 18-19: Toronto will be at home against Buffalo and Philadelphia goes to Vancouver.

April 26, the last day of the regular season: Philadelphia will be at home against Colorado while Toronto will be in Minnesota.

MILLER SHINES IN FIRST ROCK START

Brandon Miller, the 14-year veteran acquired from Philadelphia at the March 18 trade deadline, got his first goaltending start with his new team and was Toronto's best player during a 13-10 home loss to Edmonton on Sunday.

Miller let in the first Rush shot but settled in impressively.

''I just had to get comfortable,'' he said. ''I was saying to some of the guys in the (dressing) room that I was feeling some nerves that I haven't felt in maybe seven or eight years.''

Toronto led 7-6 at halftime but Edmonton took control with two short-handed goals in the third quarter. The Rush had just killed off a penalty against Mark Matthews when Brett Mydske was sent to the penalty box at 5:58. Ryan Dilks gathered in a long Nik Bilic pass and scored on a breakaway at 7:07. Then, with Jeremy Thompson off, Chris Corbeil took a Bilic pass and capped a 3-on-2 break with another short-handed goal at 12:33.

''The refs were calling it pretty tight and we got into a little penalty trouble, which gave (Toronto) the chance to get some momentum with those three power-play opportunities,'' said Corbeil. ''But our PK was good and to chip in with some short-handed goals . . . that was the turning point in the game.''

Miller made 40 saves and winning goalie Aaron Bold made 38.

Rock coach John Lovell said Nick Rose remains his team's No. 1 goalie and starting Miller was an effort to spark required improvements in defensive play. That spark was evident, leaving Rock fans to wonder whether Lovell will start Miller in Vancouver on Saturday and again leave his No. 1 on the end of the bench. Both goalies are from Orangeville, Ontario, where Rose was a ball boy with the Northmen in the 1990s when Miller was helping them win Canadian junior championships.

TIM'S IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT

Edmonton captain Chris Corbeil was dropped off beside a highway in the middle of the night in the midst of playing two NLL games within 20 hours in two countries.

Edmonton played in Rochester at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and won 15-11. It then took more than twice as long as usual to get to the U.S.-Canada border because of a snowstorm. Corbeil got the team bus to drop him off where he'd left his car near the highway a 45-minute drive west of Toronto. There was a Tim Horton's restaurant, and they are open 24 hours a day.

''It was about 2 a.m. when I ran into Tim's for a sandwich,'' Corbeil recounted.

It was after 3 a.m. when his car was parked at the hotel at which the team was staying.

''After I hung up my gear, it was 3:30.''

There was a noon-hour video session at Air Canada Centre followed by stretching exercises and warmup for a 3 p.m. start against the Rock. The Rush won 13-10.

''That's all part of the battle with these doubleheaders,'' Corbeil said of his team's action-packed weekend. ''You've just got to embrace it. A little adversity brings the guys closer together. The guys are having a blast.''

VANCOUVER'S OFFENSE COMES ALIVE

Rhys Duch scored four goals as the Stealth kept their playoff hopes alive. (File photo/Stealth)

The Stealth got some overdue offensive kick in downing Buffalo 12-8 last Saturday. Rhys Duch scored four goals and Lewis Ratcliff chipped in two to keep Vancouver's playoff hopes alive. The Stealth peppered 61 shots at Anthony Cosmo, who kept the Bandits in the game until Vancouver outscored his team 6-2 in the fourth quarter.

A home win over Toronto this Saturday night combined with a Colorado loss against the undefeated Rush in Edmonton would lift the Stealth past the Mammoth and into third place in the NLL West. The Stealth will have a game in hand.

What's left after this weekend will determine who gets the last NLL West playoff berth:

April 11-12: Vancouver is at Rochester while Colorado is at home against Edmonton

April 19: Vancouver will be at home against Philadelphia while Colorado plays at Minnesota.

April 25-26: Vancouver is in Edmonton then is back home on the schedule's closing day against Calgary while Colorado plays its 18th and final game in Philadelphia.

TRADES HELPED BUILD FOUNDATION

Roster building in Edmonton has included some significant trade wins.

In September 2011, the Rush got defenseman Chris Corbeil from Buffalo for the ninth selection in the 2011 entry draft and a 2012 first-rounder that was later transferred to Minnesota. Buffalo used the ninth pick to get Jeremy Thompson, who they later traded to Edmonton for Aaron Wilson and a second-round pick eventually transferred to Minnesota. So, GM-coach Derek Keenan got his current captain and his faceoff specialist for Wilson, basically. It's one of Keenan's favourite heists.

And how about this one: Keenan flips the fourth pick in the 2013 draft for Minnesota's fifth and gets defenseman Nik Bilic as a thank you. Who was that feeding Ryan Dilks a breakaway pass in Toronto on Sunday? Nik Bilic. Who was that setting Corbeil up for that 3-on-2 goal that followed? Nik Bilic.

And there is this: Athan Iannuci declines to play for the Rush and Keenan trades the rights to Iannucci and a second-round pick to the Stealth for Paul Rabil and their first-round 2012 draft slot. The Stealth finish last, giving Keenan the first overall slot and he takes Mark Matthews, who becomes 2013 rookie of the year. Rabil declines to play for the Rush so Keenan trades him to Rochester for Jarrett Davis, who has become a valuable contributor up front.

Keenan got Aaron Bold out of Rochester for nobody still playing with the Knighthawks. Bold has the best goals-against average in the NLL today.

Trades like these, and wise entry draft picks, created the foundation of a championship contender.

CLOSING IN ON RECORDS

Toronto's Garrett Billings continues on pace to set single-season scoring records.

Billings leads the NLL with 95 points _ 17 clear of Colorado's John Grant Jr. The record is 116 by Grant in 2012.

Billings also leads in assists with 63. He set the record with 82 two years ago. Calgary's Shawn Evans has 60 so he could also smash the record.

With two extra games this year, it was inevitable that records would fall. One that is out of reach, however, is Athan Iannuci's 71 goals for Philadelphia in 2008.

WHO'LL FINISH FIRST IN EAST?

Rochester, 9-4, and Buffalo, 8-5, each have five games left to decide which of the two teams finishes first in the NLL East and gets the first-round playoff bye.

Bandits fans might be getting nervous since their club has lost three in a row.

What's left?

This weekend: Rochester is at Minnesota on Friday and back home to play the Swarm again on Saturday, when Buffalo is at home versus Calgary. John Tavares is one shy of 800 goals and First Niagara Center will rock when he gets it.

April 12: Rochester is at home against Vancouver and Buffalo is at Minnesota.

April 18-19: Buffalo goes to Toronto and Rochester.

April 26: Rochester is at Buffalo to finalize the standings.

'NECKS CRUISE ALONG

The Calgary Roughnecks have been locked into second place in the NLL West for most of the season. They could lose all five of their remaining games and still finish second. For that matter, Calgary could win all five and still finish second given the way Edmonton is playing.

What it all means is that coach Curt Malawsky's men are in a good spot heading into the postseason. The 'Necks have the most dynamic offense in the league with Dane Dobbie leading the way with an NLL-best 37 goals. There are not a lot of teams that will wish to travel to Calgary for a May playoff date.

WILLIAMS EXTENDS STREAK

Buffalo forward Shawn Williams has extended his league-record consecutive games played streak to 225. It began with Buffalo on March 11, 2000, when he made his pro debut against the New York Saints. They disappeared long ago but Williams continues on.

MILESTONE FOR SANDERSON

A five-point effort Sunday lifted Toronto Rock forward Josh Sanderson over 1,200 career points. The exclusive Club 1,200: 1. John Tavares, Buffalo, 1,704; 2. Colin Doyle, Toronto, 1,322; 3. John Grant Jr., Colorado, 1,262; 4. Sanderson, 1,203.

SWARM ALMOST DONE

Chances of Minnesota making the playoffs are in the same realm of possibility as Swarm defenseman Jason Noble winning the league scoring title. He has one point.

Last overall at 3-10, they have a home-and-home set with NLL East leader Rochester this weekend, and second-place Buffalo will be visiting the following weekend. They finish up at home against Colorado on April 19 and Toronto on April 26. They have to win at least three to stand a chance, and even that probably would not be enough.

TIME LINE

April 6, 1991: The Detroit Turbos, coached by Medo Martinello, defeated the Baltimore Thunder 14-12 to win the league's fifth title in front of a Baltimore Arena crowd of 10,814. Gary Gait was selected as the championship game's MVP. Six teams played 10-game schedules that year. Detroit was in what was then known as the Major Indoor Lacrosse League from 1989 to 1994.


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