Playoff season in the National Lacrosse League is finally upon us.
After 16 weeks of regular-season action, it all comes down to three more weeks of single-elimination battles. Have a bad night and you're done.
The Buffalo Bandits are the only team that has been eliminated from playoff contention, leaving eight to fight for the Champion's Cup. Only three wins separated the best from the worst this year, and it seemed that everyone beat everyone at one point or other during the regular season, which means anything can happen in the postseason.
From the Toronto Rock in the top-seeded position to the Minnesota Swarm at the bottom, the parity in the league this year has meant no one has dominated anyone, every streak has been shut down and every team needs to bring their A-game for three more weeks if they hope to claim the championship.
The first matchup of the weekend is a repeat from the first round in 2012.
The Wings struggled after the midway point this year, losing five straight games before finally reeling off two wins late in the season to hang on to a playoff spot.
Unfortunately for Philly, when it loses, it tends to lose big. In their nine losses this year, they were outscored by an average of 5.7 goals, including a 20-10 beatdown at the hands of the Knighthawks in February, and a seven-goal loss to those same Knighthawks at the start of April.
They badly need to start strong in this contest; they've been outscored 117-73 in the first half of games this year.
That means they need sophomore Kevin Crowley (34 goals, 72 points) and Drew Westervelt (30 goals) to make things happen early and often. Having a healthy Brendan Mundorf (22 points in six games) in the lineup for the last few games is also giving the offense another option.
If they don't, Rochester might run away with this game.
The K'Hawks goalie, Matt Vinc, is having an outstanding year, leading the NLL in goals against average (10.17) and setting a new league record for saves in a season (662). If the Wings can't solve him in the early going, they might never get close.
Rochester's offense is led by Cody Jamieson (89 points) and Dan Dawson (75 points), either of whom can take over a game when they're feeling it.
Based on how things have gone this year, I have to lean toward Rochester in this one. I'm expecting a 12-10 win for the K'Hawks.
Washington was only a plus-2 in goals for and against during the regular season after taking a couple substantial beatings. In the two games they lost to the Rush, they lost by a combined 33-20, whereas they were only able to beat Edmonton by two in their lone victory over the Rush this year.
Edmonton, on the other hand, had the best plus-minus in the NLL this year, finishing the season at plus-33. They scored the third-most goals in the league this year while giving up the second-fewest, making them a very tough team on both ends of the floor.
The Stealth will be counting on Rhys Duch to light the lamp at his usual pace. His 45 goals led the NLL, and his 96 points were best for Washington and third in the league.
Tyler Richards (10.92 goals against average) has been doing a very good job in net for the Stealth, returning to form after a lackluster 2012 campaign.
Mark Matthews has set a Rush record for goals in a season with 38. And he's just a rookie. There's really no telling how good he might become once he matures a little. In the meantime, the Stealth defense will have their hands full trying to contain him.
Along with Ryan Ward (a team-leading 75 points) and Corey Small (64 points), the Rush have some strong weapons to bring to bear.
Aaron Bold posted an outstanding 10.56 GAA, thanks in part to a stifling defense that only allowed 41.6 shots per game. Jeremy Thompson, Kyle Rubisch and Chris Corbeil all collected more than 100 loose balls each; rebounds don't happen very often against the Rush.
I'm expecting these two evenly matched teams to play an evenly matched game, but I'm expecting Edmonton to squeeze out a 12-11 win.
Calgary beat Colorado twice in three tries during the regular season, including once since the Mammoth made wholesale changes at goalie and designated Tye Belanger as their guy in net. That bodes well for the hometown squad.
What doesn't bode so well is that the Roughnecks were 3-5 at home this season and have not enjoyed much postseason success since their 2009 Champion's Cup win.
The Mammoth won five of their last seven games to fight their way into the playoffs, making them one of the hottest teams in the league in the second half.
John Grant Jr. once again led the way for Colorado, scoring 43 goals and collecting 91 points overall. Sophomore Adam Jones was second in scoring with 72 points, and late-season acquisition Casey Powell racked up 32 points in six games for better than a five-points-per-game average.
Since taking on the starter's role as goalie, Belanger has been a revelation. His 10.77 goals against average is among the league leaders and his presence has reversed the fortunes of the franchise.
On the Calgary side, Shawn Evans won the NLL scoring title. His 112 points are tied for fifth-best in league history and 80 assists are the second-highest total of all time. Jeff Shattler added 74 points and Curtis Dickson led the team with 42 goals.
A big question mark for the Roughnecks is the status of Dane Dobbie. Dobbie was second on the team in goals scored with 40 in just 13 games, but he was injured in Week 15 and may not be available to play on Saturday. Happily, Daryl Veltman had an outstanding game last weekend in Dobbie's absence, scoring five times and adding three assists.
Mike Poulin hasn't posted the numbers he did in 2012 when he earned the NLL Goaltender of the Year Award, but he has been solid when given the opportunity; when the Roughnecks have gotten themselves in penalty trouble, the score has gotten ugly.
If Calgary can stay out of the penalty box, it has a shot.
Discipline and desire will likely determine this game, but I'm pulling for the home team in this one. Look for the Roughnecks to hang on for a 13-12 win.
The Swarm stumbled to the finish line, losing two of their last three games, but they also split their two-game series with the Rock in the regular season, so they match up well with their opposition in this game.
Callum Crawford was fourth in league scoring with 95 points, in spite of missing two games. Along with Ryan Benesch (84 points), the Swarm boast one of the most effective one-two punches in the NLL. Add in rookies Shayne Jackson (63 points) and Kiel Matisz (62 points), and the Swarm have the second-highest scoring offense in the league.
Transition Jordan MacIntosh stepped up in the absence of team captain Andrew Suitor, who was lost to injury five games into the season. MacIntosh contributed 55 points, 197 loose balls and won 55.5 percent of his faceoffs. He won the Transition Player of the Week award four straight times to finish the regular season and will get a bunch of consideration for the Transition Player of the Year Award.
The Rock enjoyed a bye week to wrap up the season, so they should be well rested and ready to go on Sunday.
Like the Swarm, Toronto had a bit of a slow finish to the schedule, dropping three of its last five. Nevertheless, they have to be considered the front-runners going into the playoffs.
Garrett Billings had his second straight 100-point season and fourth straight 30-goal season. Colin Doyle added 84 points and Kasey Beirnes was the Rock's top finisher, scoring 31 goals.
Nick Rose has been nothing short of excellent since he came to Toronto midway through the 2012 season. His 10.61 goals against average was third-best in the NLL; his 607 saves were second-most.
In many respects, I consider this game to be too close to call, in spite of it being the top seed versus the No. 9 seed. When push comes to shove, I have to go with the top seed, though, so I'm going to say 13-12 Toronto win.
Follow me on Twitter @calgaryjimbo