Road to the Champions Cup: NLL Divisional Semifinals Preview

Ron KnabenbauerCorrespondent IApril 27, 2011

After 16 weeks, the National Lacrosse League postseason begins this weekend, with four Divisional Semifinal matchups. In the Eastern Division, the 10-6 Buffalo Bandits will host the 8-8 Boston Blazers, while a pair of 10-6 squads in the Toronto Rock and Rochester Knighthawks will square off in Toronto. In the Western Division, the league leading 11-5 Calgary Roughnecks will host the 5-11 Colorado Mammoth, while the Washington Stealth and the Minnesota Swarm, both 8-8, will face each other in Minnesota.

Here is a look at the four divisional semifinal matchups and my predictions for each.

Eastern Division Semifinals: Boston Blazers at Buffalo Bandits – Sat. Apr. 30, 7:30 p.m. ET at HSBC Arena

In the middle of the season, no NLL team was hotter than the Buffalo Bandits. 

However, the Bandits struggled in their final two games of the season, losing 16-9 to Boston on Apr. 16 and 15-9 to Rochester on Apr. 23. 

Buffalo will host the Boston Blazers in a rematch on Saturday in the Eastern Division Semifinals and will look for the same outcome that they had in their first two meetings with Boston, which they won. 

Yet Bandits head coach Darris Kilgour is not looking past the 8-8 Blazers. 

“It will be a tough matchup for us,” Kilgour said. “We’ll be prepared for anything and we’ll be ready and are looking forward to the challenge.” 

Boston’s season had more twists then a roller coaster, but when the team faced elimination from playoff contention in week 14, they responded with a victory against Philadelphia.

This will be Blazers’ Matt Sawyer’s first playoff game as an NLL head coach and he said his team’s .500 record doesn’t mean anything once the postseason begins. 

“No matter what we did in the season, we knew that we would be judged by how we perform in the playoffs,” Sawyer said. “We had our struggles throughout the regular season and I think we are stronger because of it.”

What to watch for: The Blazers big three of Dan Dawson, Casey Powell and Josh Sanderson have combined for 85 goals this season, over half of Boston’s offensive production. The big question with the Bandits is can they get back to the way they were playing in the middle of the season after ending the year on a two game losing streak.

Season series: Buffalo won the season series 2-1. However, the Bandits wins came in close contests with the Blazers as Buffalo won by an average of 1.5 goals in those games. 

Prediction: The Blazers’ big three of Dawson, Powell and Sanderson are crazy good, but even with their last loss to Boston, I give Buffalo the edge. Bandits win 14-13 in a sold out HSBC Arena.

Western Division Semifinals: Colorado Mammoth at Calgary Roughnecks – Sat. Apr. 30, 8:30 p.m. ET at the Scotiabank Saddledome 

The Colorado Mammoth may have made the playoffs with a 5-11 record, but that does not mean that they are a team to be taken lightly in the postseason. 

During a six game stretch at the end of the year, Colorado won four games, including a victory over the Calgary Roughnecks 11-7 on Apr. 15. However, in that game, Calgary was without two of their best players in Jeff Shattler and Dane Dobbie. 

Mammoth head coach Bob Hamley said he knows his team will face a different Roughnecks squad then the one they faced last time out, but he also said he is excited for the opportunity to beat their Western Division rival for a third time this season.

“The guys are excited for the challenge that lays ahead,” Hamley said. “Obviously Saturday is a big game and a tough one against the league leading Roughnecks. We are excited about the opportunity.” 

The Roughnecks are the best team in the league with an 11-5 mark and are looking for their second championship in three years. 

The first two games this season between Calgary and Colorado were decided by one goal and if the Roughnecks want to win, they will need to find a way to get the ball past Mammoth goaltender Chris Levis, who has the best goals against average among Western goalies with a 9.99 mark. 

“Between the pipes, Chris Levis has given them an opportunity to win any game in this league,” said Calgary head coach Dave Pym of the Colorado goalie. “He literally has, as their coaching staff has alluded to multiple times, been their MVP. He seems to rise to the occasion every time he plays us because perhaps of the extra motivation of being with us at one point in time.” 

What to watch for: The Calgary penalty kill has struggled all season, as the Roughnecks are seventh in the league in killing penalties. On the flip side, Colorado has the best road power play among western teams. If the Mammoth get a power play late, that may be enough to secure the win in what should be a close game. 

Season series: Colorado won the series 2-1, including a win in Calgary on Jan. 15. The Roughnecks then squeaked out a 14-13 win at home against the Mammoth on Apr. 8. 

Prediction: Calgary wins 15-13, but I will not be surprised if Colorado pulls off the upset. The Mammoth are on a hot streak and have played well in Calgary this season.

Western Division Semifinals: Washington Stealth at Minnesota Swarm – Sat. Apr. 30, 8:30 p.m. ET at the Xcel Energy Center 

For the first time since 2008 and for the second time ever, the Minnesota Swarm will be playing a playoff game at home. 

The Swarm clinched the home playoff date against the Washington Stealth after they won the season series and defeated the Colorado Mammoth 12-8 last weekend.

Minnesota will be looking for some revenge against Washington after the Stealth defeated them in the postseason a year ago en route to Washington’s first championship. 

However, this Swarm team is a lot different than the squad the Stealth played a year ago. 

“Minnesota made some great moves the last year to improve their team. I think this is the best Minnesota team there has ever been,” said Washington head coach Chris Hall of the Swarm. “They improved their offense and their offense is a lot deeper than it has ever been. They made some moves at the back end and their goaltending can be spectacular at times.” 

The Stealth have played in five overtime games this season, including twice against the Swarm. Washington won their last meeting against Minnesota, 16-15 in OT, and has one of the most clutch players in the league in Rhys Duch, who leads the NLL with five game winning goals. 

Swarm general manager Marty O’Neill said with Duch and Washington’s Lewis Ratcliff, who has scored 41 goals this season, Saturday’s game will probably once again come down to who has the ball last. 

“It is going to be a close battle,” O’Neill said of Saturday’s game with the Stealth. “We match up well.

“They are the defending champs for a reason and we need to come with our best game to win.” 

What to watch for: Minnesota’s Ryan Benesch leads the league in goals with 46 and in points with 95 and was named the NLL Player of the Week after he had three goals and five assists last week against Colorado. Washington will have their scoring tandem as well with Ratcliff, Duch and Jeff Zywicki. Zywicki missed most of the season with an injury, but in his three games, he has four goals and four assists. 

Season series: Minnesota won the series 2-1, including winning 11-10 in overtime on Jan. 29 at home.

Prediction: Even though Minnesota won the season series, the Swarm and the Stealth have played each other tough and both clubs played well down the stretch of the season. This game could go either way, but I’m going to pick Washington, 16-15, in another close contest.

Eastern Division Semifinals: Rochester Knighthawks at Toronto Rock – Sun. May 1, 3:30 p.m. ET at the Air Canada Centre

For the Toronto Rock, Sunday afternoon’s game with the Rochester Knighthawks might be the worst possible matchup.

The Rock are limping into the postseason as the No. 2 seed in the East after losing four of their last five contests, including three straight. The Knighthawks are the hottest team in the league, winners of six of their last eight games and are on a three game winning streak.

Coming into the year, Rochester had a roster full of new faces and struggled early on, but the team looks as if they are coming together and are getting hot at the right time.

“We’ve seen a team that has matured and has some chemistry,” said Toronto general manager and assistant coach Terry Sanderson of the Knighthawks. “As far as the regular season goes, you have to throw that out, especially how Rochester finished the season. They had so many new faces this year and I think it just took them awhile to gel.”

While the K-hawks are on a hot streak, their play against the Rock this season has been anything but, as Toronto won all three games against Rochester this season. In Rochester and Toronto’s last two contests, the Rock overpowered the Knighthawks in each, winning 10-5 on Feb. 18 and 13-6 on Feb. 19.

Although this appears to be a different type of Rochester team then the one that played in that weekend in February, Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen said they haven’t forgotten about the beat down the Rock delivered them.

“It is still in our minds and we know that we have to be fully prepared,” Hasen said of losing three games to Toronto this season. “They handled us pretty easily the three times we did play them. We just have make sure that we’ve learned and be real, real good.”

What to watch for: The Knighthawks are tied for the best road record in the league at 6-2 and will be going for their fourth straight win on the road on Saturday. For Toronto to get out of the funk that they are in, they will need their stars, Colin Doyle and Stephen Leblanc, to step up and find the back of the net.

Season series: Toronto won the series 3-0. The Rock won by an average of five goals, but Toronto hasn’t played Rochester since Feb. 19.

Prediction: The Rochester Knighthawks are the hottest team in the league and I have to think that they will not want to lose a fourth time to an Eastern Division rival. Knighthawks win 13-10.

All four playoff games will be broadcasted live on the NLL Network at The Rochester-Toronto game will air live on TSN 2 for Canadian viewers (NLL Network broadcast blacked out in Canada).

The winners of the four games will advance to their respective Divisional Finals on the weekend of May 6-8.

Ron Knabenbauer is a National Lacrosse League Correspondent for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand or from official interview materials.


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