If the current trend of Eastern teams defeating their Western counterparts continues, odds are pretty good that the NLL Champions Cup trophy will return to the East Coast after being in the hands of Western teams the past two seasons.
Although it is only Week 7 of 16 in the National Lacrosse League season, all 10 teams will hit or have hit the halfway point of their 2011 campaign after this weekend.
Through the first six weeks, Eastern and Western division teams have played each other a total of 10 times, with the East holding a dominant 9-1 advantage in those games.
The East has been so dominant as of late that the West’s only victory against the opposing division came in Week 1, when the Calgary Roughnecks defeated the Buffalo Bandits, 10-9 at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary.
In the Eastern Division, four of the five teams have a winning percentage of .625 or higher, while in the West, only one team is above .500, as the 4-2 Roughnecks have a .571 winning percentage (Minnesota has a .500 record at 3-3).
Although the East has been dominating as of late, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those teams will do better against Western opponents later in the season or in the playoffs.
“In the East, we have five strong teams and I think sometimes we beat each other up before we get to the Western teams,” said Buffalo assistant coach Rich Kilgour.
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The Colorado Mammoth and the Minnesota Swarm have the worst records against Eastern squads this season with both being 0-3 against teams out of their division.
Bob Hamley, the head coach of the Mammoth, said he thinks that his squad has struggled the most against Eastern opponents, but also said that most of the time it depends on who’s hot and who’s not, and so far this season, it’s been the Eastern teams that have been burning up.
“Sometimes timing and the schedule are important,” said Hamley, whose team has lost twice to Philadelphia and once to Boston this season. “We ran into Philly when they were really going good and we weren’t so good.”
Geography also might have something to do with how teams play against one another. Most Eastern Division teams are just a quick bus trip from each other, while in the West (excluding Calgary and Edmonton) all of the teams are separated by thousands of miles.
Also unlike most professional sports, most lacrosse players don’t live full time in the city that they play in. Instead, many of them commute during the weekend from their homes in the lacrosse hotbeds of Vancouver, Ontario, the U.S. Northeast and the Chesapeake region.
“There is so much talent around Buffalo and Rochester and Toronto that most of the guys in the lineup live just around the corner,” said Philadelphia assistant coach Tom Slate. “[Eastern teams] are able to give guys more time to look at them in practice rather than just flying them in and having four hours to look at them and then saying yes or no.”
The Colorado Mammoth is one team in the Western Division that is trying to break away from the notion of flying half of their team in for a weekend game.
When drafting a player, the player’s residence weighs heavily on the team’s decision. At the start of this season, the Mammoth had five players who played college lacrosse at the University of Denver, knowing full well that those players already had connections in the Mile High City and wouldn’t be opposed to staying in town.
Even when trading for a player, the question of if they can move to Denver comes up. Location was the reason this past offseason why the Mammoth traded star goaltender Matt Vinc to Rochester and received future Hall of Famer John Grant Jr. Vinc wasn’t willing to move from the East Coast while Grant was more than willing to make the change.
While Colorado has had some success in holding regular practices during the week, many other Western teams struggle to find time to meet as an entire group.
“It is a lot easier for us Eastern teams to get together in practice and work on stuff,” Kilgour said. “We can have full on practices during the week while many of the Western teams have to fly in everyone and have a practice on Friday and a shoot around on Saturday. It is hard to get guys on the same page doing that stuff.”
Yet this season, the parity between the best and worst in each division seems to be stronger than in years past.
While Philadelphia (3-4) and Colorado (1-5) are in the basements in the East and the West, both squads are only two and two-and-a-half games back respectively from first place in their divisions. If either team can get on a winning streak, they’ll be back in the thick of things in no time.
However, with all the teams so evenly matched on report cards and scouting reports, it doesn’t matter if a team plays in the East or the West as anyone can beat anyone on any night.
“I will say that there is no weak sister in the NLL,” Hamley said. “Every team is quality and it depends on the week that you play.”
We’ll likely not know which divisions ends up being more dominant until the Champions Cup final in May, but we will get a preview next weekend when the best of the East and the West battle it out at the 2011 NLL All-Star game in upstate New York.
Now here is a look at all seven Week 7 games in the National Lacrosse League this weekend.
Game of the Week: Rochester Knighthawks vs. Toronto Rock: Friday, Feb. 18, 7:30 p.m. EST in Toronto; Saturday, Feb. 19, 7:35 p.m. EST in Rochester
The Toronto Rock have been the best team in the league since Week 1. Now the Rochester Knighthawks will have the chance to dethrone them.
Toronto and Rochester will meet in a home-and-home series this weekend with first place in the Eastern Division on the line. If the Knighthawks can win both games, they’ll be the new top team in the East while the Rock just have to split the series to stay at number one.
Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen said his team might be turning a corner after winning their last two games and three of their last four.
“Things are starting to come together,” Hasen said. “In the early portion we had new guys in, new principles and new directions. So far we’ve come around a little bit, but this weekend will be a tough test.”
The Rock and the Knighthawks met back in Week 2 with Toronto winning 12-9 thanks in part to Bob Watson’s 53 saves in net.
Toronto would love to have another 12-goal performance as the team has struggled to find the back of the net as of late, scoring in single digits in its last three games.
The weekend series will begin in Toronto on Friday night before the teams travel across the border to Rochester on Saturday. The NLL Network will broadcast both games at NLL.com.
Colorado Mammoth at Washington Stealth: Friday, Feb. 18, 11 p.m. EST
It doesn’t matter how they get it, but the Colorado Mammoth need a win. This week they’ll look to end a four-game slide and finally defeat the Washington Stealth, who have won the last eight games in the series. Colorado hasn’t won since Week 2 and is 0-2 against Washington this season, losing 11-10 in overtime on opening night and 10-8 on Feb. 5.
The Stealth have shown glimpses this season of their championship self from a year ago, but have struggled to maintain any time above .500. Washington sits at 3-5 overall and are coming off two losses to the Edmonton Rush.
The Stealth’s second half of their schedule won’t be any easier than their first half, as they’ll play games against Calgary and Eastern Division teams in Boston, Toronto, Buffalo and Rochester.
Philadelphia Wings at Buffalo Bandits: Saturday, Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m. EST
In a rematch of last week’s game, the Philadelphia Wings will look for any kind of improvement against a Buffalo Bandits squad that beat them by nine goals.
Buffalo’s offense was working on all cylinders last Saturday as six players finished with four or more points. The Bandits also received a solid goaltending outing by Mike Thompson, who stopped 43 of the Wings’ 50 shots.
Philadelphia had won three straight and found themselves in the middle of the Eastern Division pack, but two losses the last two weeks have dropped them back into the cellar. Last week Athan Iannucci led the Wings with two goals and three assists, but Philadelphia will need him and Drew Westervelt to make more of an impact if they want to avoid getting embarrassed again by the Bandits.
Boston Blazers at Minnesota Swarm: Saturday, Feb. 19, 8:30 p.m. EST
The Boston Blazers are the hottest team in the NLL after winning their last three games. They head to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. to take on a Swarm squad that will be looking to get back in the win column after losing two straight. Boston’s offense is one of the deadliest in the league. However, lately it's been the Blazers' defense that has been stepping up. In the last three games, the Blazers' D has kept their opponents to seven goals or less in each contest.
This season, Minnesota is 3-0 against Western Division opponents but are 0-3 against teams from the East. The Swarm hope that trend will end this week.
In last Saturday’s 12-10 loss to Rochester, Ryan Benesch once again had a great outing, scoring four goals while adding one assist. Benesch and the rest of the Minnesota offense will have to be up to the task of matching Boston’s firepower as the Blazers lead the Eastern Division in goals for with 85.
Calgary Roughnecks at Edmonton Rush: Sunday, Feb. 20, 4 p.m. EST
In round three of the Battle of Alberta, the Edmonton Rush will look to have a better result than what they had in their previous meetings against Calgary. The Rush were swept in the weekend home-and-home series against the Calgary Roughnecks three weeks ago, but bounced back last week, winning both games against the Washington Stealth. The team is confident and will look to continue that on Sunday afternoon.
The Roughnecks last weekend had a bad second half, giving up a halftime lead to the Toronto Rock and eventually losing in overtime. Though they lost the game, the team battled back with two late goals to tie the contest at eight. The first-place team in the Western Division won’t be able to have another second-half letdown if it wants to get another victory over its province rival.
Minnesota Swarm at Colorado Mammoth: Sunday, Feb. 20, 8 p.m. EST
The Colorado Mammoth and the Minnesota Swarm will play the second half of their two-game weekend on Sunday night at the Pepsi Center in Denver. Colorado will play on Friday night in Everett, Wash., which may give the Mammoth the slight edge because of the extra day off. Minnesota will play the night before at home and will travel to the Mile High City after the game. However, the Mammoth’s last win at home came in 2009, and the Swarm are undefeated against Western teams this season.
Minnesota and Colorado will play two more times this season, Mar. 4 in Denver and Apr. 23 in St. Paul.
All seven NLL games this weekend will be broadcasted live on the NLL Network at NLL.com.