As the 2013 NLL season enters its fifth week of play, most of the teams are bunched up tight in the middle of the pack.
The Toronto Rock have pushed themselves out in front with a 4-1 record, tops in the East as well as best record overall. The Rochester Knighthawks are on the other end of the scale, getting off to a disappointing 0-3 start after winning the Champion's Cup last season. No more than a game separates the other seven teams from each other.
Week 5 features four games involving eight squads, with the Philadelphia Wings getting the week off to lick their wounds after losing two in a row last weekend.
The top two teams in the East thus far, Toronto and the Buffalo Bandits, face off in the first game of the weekend, with the division lead on the line.
Elsewhere, the Washington Stealth travel to Rochester for a rematch of their Week 1 tilt, which the Stealth won. The Colorado Mammoth host the Minnesota Swarm in a battle of the basement in the West. And finally, the Calgary Roughnecks travel north to face the Edmonton Rush for the first time since the Rush eliminated the Roughnecks from last year's playoffs.
I went 6-1 in my predictions last week; let's see how I do this week....
The Toronto Rock are currently sitting in first place at 4-1 while the Buffalo Bandits are just a half game behind at 3-1. The team who wins this matchup will be in first place in the NLL East.
Toronto won two games last weekend, beating both the Minnesota Swarm and the Rochester Knighthawks. Buffalo, on the other hand, is on a three-game winning streak since dropping their season opener.
Toronto's offense is once again being led by Garrett Billings, with 29 points. Billings set an NLL record for most assists in a season in 2012 and has picked up right where he left off, as he once again has the league's assists lead, at 22.
Colin Doyle isn't far behind Billings, having picked up 23 points so far, while Josh Sanderson has the most goals, with 11.
But the big story so far for the Rock has been the outstanding play of goaltender Nick Rose. The young netminder is currently leading the NLL in wins (4), goals against average (9.31), save percentage (.814) and total saves (201). Rose has been the main factor in the Rock's success so far and continues to look good game after game.
Buffalo's No. 1 goalie has been less impressive so far. Veteran Anthony Cosmo is near the bottom of the leaderboard in goals against average (14.26) and save percentage (.722) so far, although he did a better job last weekend. If he has another bad start, Kurtis Wagar is waiting in the wings and has done an excellent job (9.25 goals against average) in the backup role.
Shawn Williams is leading the charge offensively, with 21 points thus far. He also extended his NLL-record ironman streak to 200 games last weekend and shows no signs of slowing down.
Speaking of not slowing down, 44-year-old John Tavares is tied for second in scoring on the Bandits, with 14 points, and continues to add to his all-time record career points total. Ironically, Tavares is tied for second in points on the team with rookie Dhane Smith, who is off to a fine start to his career.
These are two veteran squads with a good balance of youth and experience but so far this year, the Rock have looked a shade better.
I'm looking for a 12-11 Toronto win.
When these teams played in Week 1, a late-game surge gave the Washington Stealth the 13-12 win.
Playing Saturday night in Rochester, the Knighthawks will be trying to even the score and earn their first win of the year.
Cliff Smith has been a pleasant surprise for the Stealth so far in the 2013 campaign. His 22 points are already the most he's ever scored in a season and, although he's cooled off since racking up 15 points in the first two games, he has established himself as another effective weapon in Washington's arsenal.
Rhys Duch (14 goals, 27 points) has now passed Smith for the Stealth scoring lead, while Lewis Ratcliff has come on of late and currently stands at 19 points on the year.
Bob Snider is leading the NLL in loose balls (67) and faceoffs won (104), while Mike Grimes and Jeff Moleski have each collected a respectable 24 loosies.
Tyler Richards (12.35 goals against average) and Nick Patterson (14.88 goals against average) have split the goaltending duties so far, but Richards will likely get the start for this game.
The big story so far in Rochester has been the lack of offensive production. With the additions of former MVPs Dan Dawson and Casey Powell to the mix, the Knighthawks were expected to be one of the best scoring teams in the NLL.
Then again, this experiment was tried once before.
In 2011, Dawson, Powell and Josh Sanderson were put together on the (now defunct) Boston Blazers. In 2010, the trio had finished as the top three scorers in the league, but their strengths apart didn't translate into a powerhouse together, as the Blazers finished the year with the eighth-most goals in the 10-team NLL.
Here in 2013, the Knighthawks are only scoring 10.7 goals per game and Dawson and Powell have just eight points apiece, both well under their historical five-points per game averages.
The good news is that Rochester's top point-getter from 2012, Cody Jamieson, has picked up where he left off, with five goals and 10 assists so far.
Rochester's defense hasn't been much better. They have collected 14 fewer loose balls and have forced eight fewer turnovers than the opposition so they need to step their games up as well.
Netminder Matt Vinc's 12.33 goals against has been solidly in the middle of the pack so far. He hasn't been a dominant force, but he also isn't costing the team wins.
If we go strictly by the numbers to date, Washington should have the edge here. Top-to-bottom, they've been playing better as a team. But I'm going to stick my neck out and guess that the home field advantage in Rochester's barn might actually pay off.
I'm taking the Knighthawks by a 13-12 score.
Minnesota won one and lost one last weekend, both by a single goal, while Colorado got blown out 19-12 at home by the Calgary Roughnecks. Both teams will be looking to get themselves back to .500 in this game.
Minnesota's Kiel Matisz won the Rookie of the Week award last week for his 10 points and 13 loose balls in the Swarm's two games.
Ryan Benesch had an even better weekend, picking up five points on Friday and seven on Saturday. Benesch is leading the team in scoring with 19 points on the season.
The Swarm's goaltending tandem of Evan Kirk and Tyler Carlson haven't been quite as strong this year as they were last year, both with goals against averages above 13.00, but they have been okay. It is probably Carlson's turn between the pipes, so look for him to get the start.
Colorado is still reeling from the 19-12 beatdown the Calgary Roughnecks put on them last weekend and, in the wake of that defeat, the Mammoth released No. 1 goalie Chris Levis, bringing back former backup Dan Lewis to fill the roster spot. Lewis will likely start on the bench behind Matt Roik, who has put up a subpar 13.96 goals against average.
Colorado's offense is once again powered by defending league MVP John Grant Jr., who has 19 points, along with team captain Gavin Prout who is currently tied with Grant for the team scoring lead.
Neither of these teams seems to have any trouble scoring; keeping the ball out of their own net has been the challenge.
Look for Minnesota's young squad to come out on top, however, by a 15-14 score.
In the first round of last year's playoffs, Calgary hosted Edmonton, and the Rush put the hurt on the odds-on favorites to win the Champion's Cup. The Roughnecks have probably not forgotten this and will be looking for revenge.
In 2013, Edmonton hasn't exactly been setting the world on fire, starting out with a 1-3 record, but they have plenty of time to round back into a playoff contender.
The Roughnecks earned their first two wins of the season last weekend, blowing out the Colorado Mammoth by seven goals on Friday and then hammering the Philadelphia Wings by eight on Sunday. Along the way, they earned three of the four weekly honors in the NLL.
Sean Evans set a Roughnecks record on Friday with his 13-point night and followed it up with a six-point game on Sunday to earn the Player of the Week award. Geoff Snider's seven weekend points, 28 loose balls and 43 faceoff wins made him the Transition Player of the Week. And Mike Poulin's 80-save weekend earned him the Defensive Player of the Week award.
Edmonton stumbled a little in their rematch with the Washington Stealth. After soundly beating the Stealth two weekends ago, Washington responded in kind last weekend.
The good news is that first overall pick Mark Matthews is living up to the hype. He is averaging six points per game to lead the Rush and seems to be well on the way to being a dominant player in the NLL.
Goaltender Aaron Bold has picked up right where he left off last year. His 10.90 goals against average is good for third-best in the NLL so far.
It doesn't seem to matter what sport it is; teams from Calgary and Edmonton don't like each other. There always seems to be bad blood in the Battle of Alberta, and this game should be no different, especially given the way the playoffs went in 2012.
Expect lots of fireworks, but also expect the Roughnecks to keep on rolling to a 13-12 victory.
Follow me on Twitter @calgaryjimbo