There are few things across the sports landscape that get players and fans more fired up than a showdown with a bitter rival. Those feelings become even more intensified when those rivals meet up with everything on the line.
That is exactly what happened at the 2014 World Lacrosse Championship game Saturday near Denver. Canada knocked off its archrival, the United States, in a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated, 8-5.
Kevin Crowley led the way for the Canadians with five goals, but Dillon Ward's effort in goal against the powerful American offense should not go overlooked. From the opening minutes, Canada controlled possession and was more than happy to bleed the clock with stall tactics on offense. The strategy worked to perfection, and Crowley and the offense capitalized on opportunities when they presented themselves.
Ward was a stone wall on the other end and was named the game's MVP.
Incredibly enough, Saturday’s showdown marked the fifth consecutive time that these two powerhouses met in the finals of this event, which takes place every four years.
This year’s World Championships actually began with a matchup between the two sides. The United States won that one 10-7 by overcoming an early three-goal deficit with eight straight goals of its own.
Much like that first game, Canada jumped out to an early lead in the finals Saturday. It was Crowley who got the scoring started in the first quarter, as Canada Lacrosse pointed out:
Throughout the tournament, Canada’s defense had propelled it to victories, while the United States overpowered opponents with its balanced offensive attack that features a number of scorers. It was that Canadian defense that controlled the tempo in the first quarter, but Terry Foy of Inside Lacrosse was impressed by the attack:
A formidable offensive push from Canada paired with its typically strong defense spelled early trouble for the United States. After a quarter, it was 2-0 Canada.
The fact that Canada jumped out to a quick start was likely no surprise for defenseman Lee Zink, who was certainly ready for the game, via Matt Boyer of 9 News Denver:
"This is pretty special. This is the second step in the process. The first step was getting the No. 1 seed (in the elimination round), the second step was winning this semifinal game, and the third step is to win the championship. That's our goal."
The United States answered with an early goal in the second quarter to cut the deficit in half, but Canada's ball control was worrisome for the defending champs. In fact, the Canadians were doing their best impression of Wisconsin basketball and gradually bled the clock on nearly every one of their possessions.
The high-powered American team that had run rampant through the earlier stages of this tournament was nowhere to be found throughout the majority of the second quarter.
All that ball control finally paid off for Canada in a crazy sequence. US Lacrosse described the scene:
Crowley's hat trick gave Canada a 3-1 lead, which was the score at intermission. That's right, the United States team that was averaging almost 18 goals a game in the tournament found the back of the net once in the first half.
Things opened up a bit when the teams came out of the locker room.
The United States controlled the first five minutes of the third quarter and capitalized when Kevin Leveille buried a goal to cut the lead to 3-2. However, Canada responded again when Crowley (who else?) scored his fourth goal and re-established some breathing room.
That momentum the Red, White and Blue had at the opening of the second half was quickly gone when Canada went back on the attack. The Canadians added two more goals, including one from Crowley, and opened up a 6-2 lead.
After that, Canada injected some more of its ball-control offense and slowly ate away at the third-quarter clock. The crowd in Colorado grew restless, but the strategy was clearly working, as the powerful American offense couldn't even get its hands on the ball for extended stretches.
Foy commented on the Canada offense:
Canada used the entire last three minutes of the quarter in one possession and scored right at the end to take a 7-2 lead into the final period. It appeared to be a crippling blow for the frustrated Americans.
Watching paint dry would be more exciting than the strategy Canada was using, but it was up to the United States to utilize more ball pressure and force the issue in the final 20 minutes. However, it was Canada that scored the first goal and looked to be well on its way to a gold medal.
It was easy to focus on the ball-control tactics from the Canadian side as it pushed away the attempts from the United States in the fourth quarter. However, that would be overlooking an important aspect, as Foy pointed out:
Things started to change, though, in the middle of the fourth quarter. The United States finally turned up the defensive intensity and forced a number of takeaways and trimmed the lead to 8-4. The team reacted on Twitter:
All of a sudden, the momentum was on the side of the Red, White and Blue, and the crowd reached a fever pitch when the lead was cut to 8-5. Canada, which was so strong on both ends of the field throughout the entire game, was losing its grip on its dominance down the stretch.
Lacrosse Magazine set the stage for a possible dramatic finish:
Canada responded out of a timeout and scored a goal for some insurance, but the point was disallowed. The referee declared that the attacker entered the crease on the shot, which kept the United States alive.
The urgent Americans forced the issue and created a number of opportunities but were unable to come through with their momentum. Missed shots and turnovers cost the United States some serious time and ultimately a chance to defend its title.
Canada scurried across the field when it did get the ball in the final minutes and held on for an 8-5 win. The type of energy that fans were treated to in the last 10 minutes of the contest was simply missing for much of the game.
Had it been there from the American side earlier, the outcome may have been different.
It will be interesting to see if there is any fallout from this game in terms of rule changes.
The commentators debated the merits of instituting a shot clock throughout the second half as Canada simply stood at the baseline and watched the clock tick away. Arguments can certainly be made on both sides of the debate, but that doesn't change the fact that Saturday's victory was very decisive for the Canadians for all but a five-minute stretch in the final quarter.
Chances are, the Americans will get a chance at revenge in four years.