And then there were four.
The National Lacrosse League’s final four teams are set and will be looking for a berth in the championship game at their respective divisional finals on Saturday. The Toronto Rock will play the Buffalo Bandits in the Eastern Division Final at 7:30 p.m. EDT, while the Washington Stealth will face the Calgary Roughnecks later in the night at 9:30 p.m. EDT in the Western Division Final.
Here is a look at the divisional finals match ups and my predictions for each.
Eastern Division Final: Toronto Rock at Buffalo Bandits – Saturday May 7, 7:30 p.m. EDT
The Toronto Rock seem to have found their groove once again.
Coming into the matchup with Rochester, we didn’t know what Rock team would show up: would it be the squad that began the season 9-2, or would it be the club that lost their final three regular season games, two of which were against teams with losing records?
It appeared that it was the team that began the year with nine wins that showed up.
“I thought we beat a very good team in Rochester,” Rock Head Coach Troy Cordingley said of last week’s game. “They were coming in real hot and I thought we were really sound both offensively and defensively. It was good to see after we struggled at the end of the year.”
This week’s matchup in the Eastern Division Final will not be any easier for Toronto, as they will travel to HSBC Arena in Buffalo on Saturday to face the Bandits.
The Bandits squad is nothing new for Cordingley, as he used to be an assistant coach in Buffalo under current head coach Darris Kilgour.
Cordingley and Kilgour both play similar types of games, and both teams have a good idea of what the other is going to bring to the field this weekend.
“They do a lot of things that we do, so they are going to know what we are going to try and do, and I think we know what they will try and do,” Kilgour said of the Rock. “They are probably one of the most technical teams that we will play against and it is going to come down to who executes better and who controls themselves better. Neither team wants to be in the box.”
Buffalo defeated the Boston Blazers 11-10 last Saturday to get to this point, and they have John Tavares to thank for that. After being in the locker room for much of the fourth quarter with a calf muscle issue, the 20-year veteran Tavares stepped onto the floor late and scored the game winning goal for the Bandits with 40 seconds remaining.
Cordingley, who has worked with Tavares as both a player and as a coach, said anything that Taveres does is not shocking.
“To be honest, nothing surprises me with him,” Cordingley said of Tavares. “The guy is 42 years old and he is still in the top 10 in scoring. He gets the big goals when the big goals are needed. So nothing surprises me about him, I wouldn’t be surprised if he played until he was 50.”
With a win, Buffalo would go to their first championship game since 2008 when they won the Champions Cup, while Toronto would go to their second straight title game.
What to watch for: Tempers flared back in December between Toronto and Buffalo in a preseason scrimmage which was called in the third quarter after a bench clearing brawl. The physical play will surely be elevated this weekend with a championship berth on the line. The team that has the most composure and stays out of the penalty box will likely come away as the winner.
Season series: Buffalo won the season series, 2-1. The Bandits defeated the Rock 15-14 in overtime on Jan. 22 in the two teams’ only match up in Buffalo.
Prediction: The Rock might have found their swagger again after defeating a good Knighthawks team, but I think the Bandits are a better club and will once again prove it this weekend. Buffalo wins 16-13.
Western Division Final: Washington Stealth at Calgary Roughnecks – Saturday May 7, 9:30 p.m. EDT
For the past two seasons, the NLL Champion has come out of the West. This weekend, the past two championship teams will battle for an opportunity to add another championship ring to their collection.
The Washington Stealth, the defending champions, will head north of the border on Saturday to play the Calgary Roughnecks at the Scotiabank Saddledome in the Western Division Final.
“Obviously there is going to be some tensions on both sides,” Washington head coach Chris Hall said on the upcoming game. “You are playing in the Western Division Final and the winner gets to go to the ‘big game’. I think both teams are looking inward and are making sure they are doing everything that they possibly can rather than focusing on what the opposition is going to do.”
The Stealth are coming off of a solid road victory in their divisional semifinal game last weekend, in which they defeated the Minnesota Swarm 14-8.
Washington’s 2011 season has been nothing like their 2010 campaign, in which they steamrolled opponents all the way to the championship. This year the Stealth, who were plagued by injuries, had more of a roller coaster season which ended in an 8-8 record and the third playoff seed in the West.
However, the Stealth played well down the home stretch of the season as they won three of four games between weeks 12-14, and their only loss in that time span came in overtime.
The Stealth’s roster is mostly the same squad that won the title a year ago, and they have postseason momentum on their side, something that Calgary head coach Dave Pym said will be difficult for his team to face.
“They appear to be firing on all cylinders,” Pym said of the Stealth. “When they get great goaltending and coupled with a strong athletic defense that can get the ball up the floor, and what can you say about their offense other than it is very dynamic and they have multiple weapons on both sides with incredible balance. It will be a monumental challenge for us.”
The Roughnecks defeated the Colorado Mammoth 10-6 last weekend in their divisional semifinal contest, but the game with Colorado was a lot closer then the score indicated, as it was only a four goal second quarter that helped Calgary prevail in the end.
“I thought we had a pretty good performance,” Pym said of his team’s play against Colorado. “We had a two week layoff before that game so our offense might have taken a little bit of time to get into a rhythm. Mikey Poulin and our defensive core did a tremendous job in shutting the door. The main thing in those games with Colorado was maintaining our discipline and emotional control, and it proved to be successful for us in staying out of the box.”
Saturday’s division final match up will likely be another high scoring affair, as the Roughnecks and the Stealth averaged a total of 29 goals scored in their three contests this season.
While both teams have offensive firepower, they also have plenty of playoff experience, which Hall said always helps when you get to this time of the year.
“I think there is something to be said about going to the playoffs and having playoff experience,” Hall said. “You know what the atmosphere is going to be like and what happens in the game.”
What to watch for: Calgary has a dangerous scoring duo in Dane Dobbie and Jeff Shattler, but Washington’s arsenal is equally as explosive as they have Lewis Ratcliff and Rhys Duch, both 40 goal scorers, and it appears a healthy Jeff Zywicki as well. Zywicki, who had 30 goals last season, had four goals in his three regular season games he played this year, and had an impact last weekend against the Swarm - scoring two goals and adding two assists.
Season series: Calgary won the season series, 2-1. The Roughnecks crashed the Stealth’s championship banner ceremony during week 1 of the season as they won 13-11 in Everett, Wash., on Jan. 9. Washington did win the only match up in Calgary during the year on Jan. 22.
Prediction: The Stealth appear to be in postseason shape after their convincing road win in Minnesota last weekend. Once again, it will not be as easy for Washington this weekend, but I think they will pull off the win over Calgary in the end. Washington wins 17-15 in another high scoring affair.
Both divisional finals games will be broadcasted live on the NLL Network at NLL.com. The Buffalo-Toronto game will be televised live on TSN2 for Canadian viewers (NLL Network broadcast blacked out in Canada), while the Calgary-Washington contest will re-air on VERSUS in the U.S. on Sunday at 2 p.m. EDT.
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.