Week 8 of the NLL schedule features five games involving seven of the nine teams in the league and brings us to the midway point in the season.
After Week 7 action, the standings have taken a little clearer shape, but no team is more than a win or two from being right back in contention.
The Toronto Rock soundly defeated the Calgary Roughnecks for the second time last weekend, making it clear that the Rock are the best team in the league. The Roughnecks, still best in the West, will need to step up and solve the Rock riddle if they plan on taking a run at the Champion's Cup.
On the other end of the ledger, the Minnesota Swarm and Colorado Mammoth are battling for worst record in the NLL and need to start picking up wins. The Swarm have two critical games against the Edmonton Rush this weekend, and the Mammoth are in Philadelphia for a big game against the Wings.
The Minnesota Swarm and Edmonton Rush play a home-and-home series this weekend, beginning in Edmonton on Friday.
The last time these two teams met was in last year's playoffs, when the Rush took out the Swarm in the West Division final. The Swarm will be looking for some revenge.
Minnesota lost a tough one last weekend to the Calgary Roughnecks and they need to get back on track if they hope to make the playoffs.
Ryan Benesch is leading the team in scoring with 32 points, good for 11th best in the league, while rookies Shayne Jackson (26 points) and Kiel Matisz (22 points) are second and third on the Swarm, respectively. Callum Crawford has picked up 18 points in just four games and is a big part of the offensive equation.
The Swarm's problem hasn't been scoring; it has been giving up goals. With a league-worst 14 goals against per game, Minnesota's defense needs to step up in front of goalies Evan Kirk and Tyler Carlson.
The Swarm have given up 45 more shots on goal than they've taken, and the Kirk/Carlson tandem has not looked good as a result, posting a sub-par .740 save percentage combined.
Edmonton is on a two-game winning streak, taking a pair of games last weekend in convincing fashion.
Rookie Mark Matthews is powering the Rush's offense. After his first career sock trick and 11 goals overall last weekend, he is now fifth in the NLL in scoring with 38 points and leading the league in goals scored with 23. On his current pace, he will break Paul Gait's rookie record of 47 goals in a season.
Not surprisingly, Matthews also won Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Jeremy Thompson also took home some hardware last weekend, earning the Transition Player of the Week award.
Aaron Bold is once again among the league leaders in goals-against average, posting a solid 10.68 so far.
Minnesota needs a big game out of their defense, but if Matthews is feeling it, he is looking almost impossible to shut down. I'm looking for a 13-12 Rush victory.
Two weeks ago, the Rochester Knighthawks doubled up on the Philadelphia Wings 20-10 in Philly. This week, the Wings get a shot at evening the score in Rochester.
After getting off to a 2-0 start, the Wings have lost their last three, sliding them to last place in the East Division. The Knighthawks have gone in the opposite direction, starting their Champion's Cup title defense with three straight losses before going on a three-win tear, which was stopped last week by the Buffalo Bandits.
Kevin Crowley and Kevin Buchanan are tied for the Philadelphia lead in points with 23 each.
Brodie Merrill is continuing to provide excellent support on transition, having collected a team-high 49 loose balls.
Brandon Miller is providing solid goaltending, posting an 11.87 goals-against average.
The Knighthawks have been up and down on the offensive side, being held under 10 goals three times in seven games, including last weekend.
The good news is that Cody Jamieson is having an excellent season, leading the K'Hawks in scoring with 36 points, sixth best in the NLL. The bad news is that former league MVPs Dan Dawson (22 points) and Casey Powell (16 points in five games) have both been largely underwhelming thus far.
Goaltender Matt Vinc is having an outstanding season, leading the league in goals-against average (10.10) and save percentage (.811), but he needs his offense to score a few more goals for him.
Playing in front of a home crowd, I'm expecting Rochester to step up and get the job done. Look for a 12-10 Knighthawks win.
The battle of the Snider brothers begins Saturday night in Washington when the Stealth host the Calgary Roughnecks.
Bob Snider of the Stealth and Geoff of the Roughnecks are far and away the top two faceoff men in the NLL. Last year, Bob set a new NLL record for most faceoff wins in a season with 319. Geoff has three of the top 10 seasons for most faceoffs, including a tie for second most (318).
This year, not surprisingly, they're once again the top two in the NLL; Geoff has won 158 draws already while Bob has won 143.
Also not surprisingly, the Sniders are the top two in the league in loose balls; Geoff has 128 and Bob has 94.
So when these two guys match up against each other, it is truly a clash of the titans. Will the game's results rest on which brother can win this battle? It's a possibility.
Of course, it's also a possibility that Geoff will get himself in penalty trouble and leave Bob to his own devices in the faceoff circle. Last week, Geoff got thrown out of back-to-back games as a result of fighting an unwilling opponent in one game and earning two major penalties in the other.
I love watching Geoff Snider throw punches as much as the next guy, but he has to make better decisions against the Stealth because the Roughnecks are much better with him than without him.
Penalties and undisciplined play were the story for Calgary last weekend.
Toronto scored nine power-play goals against the Roughnecks en route to an easy win and, although they held Minnesota to just four power-play goals the next night, if it hadn't been for Curtis Dickson scoring three short-handed goals, the Swarm probably would have taken the win in that game.
Washington were set back by the Edmonton Rush last weekend, losing 15-10, and were outplayed in virtually every aspect of the game. The Rush had almost twice as many shots on goal, collected 23 more loose balls and forced 12 more turnovers.
Although the Stealth are second in the West, they need to pick their game up across the board if they hope to get past the Roughnecks.
I'm still going to go with the Roughnecks in this game. They're still the team to beat in the West and should be able to find their way to a 13-12 win.
Game 2 of the Minnesota-Edmonton home-and-home series takes place in Minnesota on Sunday afternoon.
When two teams square off twice in the same weekend, I usually assume that age and fatigue might be factors in the second game. If that's the case, the Swarm have the advantage.
The Swarm have four rookies putting in quality time on the floor right now, with Kiel Matisz, Shayne Jackson, Brock Sorensen and Alex Crepinsek all contributing.
Add in sophomores Jordan MacIntosh, Evan Kirk, Tyler Carlson and Corbin Tao, along with third-year players such as Andrew Suitor and Tyler Hass, and you have a very young team with a lot of talent.
Edmonton has some kids as well—most notably Mark Matthews—but it's got more veteran players on its roster.
The upside for the Rush is that those veterans helped get the team to the Champion's Cup final last year, so they have had a taste of the promised land and know what it takes to get back there.
If the Rush are suffering with some tired legs on Sunday, they'll be in tough. But at this stage in the season, I still think experience trumps youthful exuberance. I'll take Edmonton 14-12.
The Colorado Mammoth are on a two-game losing streak going into this trip to Philadelphia and, worse still, the team that led the NLL in goals last year isn't scoring right now.
Having scored just 13 goals during their losing streak, the Mammoth have lost their touch around the net. Reigning league MVP John Grant Jr. was held to just three points last week, less than half of his regular pace this season.
For a team whose goaltending might be the weakest in the NLL, this is a serious concern.
The Philadelphia Wings are also struggling through their own three-game losing streak. While they may have broken that streak on Friday against the Rochester Knighthawks, they still have some distance to make up to get back into contention.
Kevin Crowley, Drew Westervelt and Kevin Buchanan need to step up their games on the offensive side and goalie Brandon Miller needs to rebound from his disappointing performance two weeks ago against the K'Hawks.
Generally speaking, I like teams who can fill up the net over teams with strong defense and goaltending. However, I think Philly has the tools to push past Colorado in this one. Call it a 13-12 Wings win.
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