The first round of the NLL playoffs saw the top two teams in the regular season bow out early, making the quest for the Champion's Cup wide open to whichever team wants it the most.
The biggest upset came Saturday night when the Edmonton Rush, with the worst record of any playoff team, destroyed the Calgary Roughnecks, who finished with the best record in the league. Edmonton completely outplayed Calgary, taking advantage of miscues, showing more hustle and better execution. On that night, the Rush deserved to win, without question.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Swarm were in the process of upsetting the Colorado Mammoth. The Swarm had beaten the Mammoth a week earlier in the last game of the regular season, so the stage was set for a big upset, and that's exactly what transpired.
In the East, it was a different story.
The Rochester Knighthawks made it four in a row against the Philadelphia Wings, weathering a late surge to pull off the 14-13 victory. And the Toronto Rock shut out the Buffalo Bandits in the second half of their tilt, emerging with a 7-6 win.
Neither the Minnesota Swarm nor the Edmonton Rush have ever played in the Champion's Cup final, so whoever emerges from the West will be making team history. In the East, Toronto is the defending champ and the odds-on favorites to win it all again, while Rochester has been coming on strong and would love to put their names on the Cup for the first time since 2007.
Edmonton Rush vs. Minnesota Swarm
The Swarm have to be considered favorites in this game. They have won five in a row and are playing with confidence at both ends of the floor.
The two teams split their season series, but it is worth noting that Edmonton's win came in March while the Swarm's former scoring champ Ryan Benesch was out of the lineup, recovering from a concussion.
Despite the absence of Benesch during several March games, the Swarm had the third-most goals scored as a team (202). They also finished with the third-fewest goals against, with 190.
Major gains were made this year with the emergence of rookies Evan Kirk and Jordan MacIntosh.
Kirk's 9.81 goals-against average and .807 save percentage were tops in the NLL this year. MacIntosh had a 51-point campaign and set a team record with 153 loose balls collected, while also taking on the bulk of the faceoff duties for the team.
Minnesota's pressure defense produced 199 forced turnovers, with three players all recording more than 20 apiece.
Top to bottom, this team has rounded out into a very solid squad.
Edmonton shocked many people, except perhaps themselves, with their 19-11 beat-down of the Roughnecks last weekend.
Ryan Ward exploded for 11 points, and both Ward and Corey Small contributed five goals each to the effort.
Aaron Bold was his usual solid self in the net, giving up just 11 goals on 52 shots and earning the game MVP award.
The Rush have now won three of their last five games, including dispatching Calgary and Colorado during that stretch, so they are hitting their stride at exactly the right time.
With the second-best defense in the league, giving up just 175 regular season goals, Edmonton can challenge Minnesota if they are able to continue to produce effectively on the offensive end.
At the end of the day, however, I have to go with the hot hand, and no one is as hot as the Swarm right now. I'm expecting a 12-10 Minnesota victory.
Rochester Knighthawks vs. Toronto Rock
This looks to be a pretty evenly-matched game.
Toronto swept the season series, taking all three games by comfortable margins, but in a one-and-done playoff, anything can happen.
The Knighthawks have won three of their last four and seem to be playing as well right now as they have all year.
The offense is paced by Cody Jamieson, who led the team in points (85) and goals (36). Four other players provided 20 or more goals, so there are a number of secondary scoring options.
Goalie Matt Vinc didn't have his best year, but he is a former Goalie of the Year in the NLL and can draw on that experience when needed.
Although he gave up 13 goals last week against Philadelphia, seven of those came in the final quarter during a final mad push to the end, and Vinc was able to keep the Wings from getting the tying goal in the dying moments of the game.
The Rock have won three in a row and six of their last seven, so they are also playing some excellent lacrosse right now.
Goalie Nick Rose has been a revelation in the net for Toronto since coming over in a mid-season trade with Calgary. He has started all seven games he has been there for, posted an excellent 10.69 goals against average for the Rock in the regular season and then stepped it up another notch last week in the playoffs against Buffalo, giving up just six goals on 42 shots.
Offensively, Garrett Billings set a franchise record with 114 regular season points and an NLL record with 82 assists. Like Jamieson on the 'Hawks, Billings also has four teammates who recorded 20 or more goals during the season, so there are plenty of options to go to.
Statistically, this one looks too close to call, so I have to go with my gut, and my gut says Toronto's defensive play should be able to contain Rochester's attack one more time. I'm predicting a 13-12 win for the Rock.
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