It may be a different city and a different arena, but it will be the same teams from last year that will have the chance at the 2011 Champions Cup.
On Sunday, the National Lacrosse League will crown its new champion when the Toronto Rock and the Washington Stealth will meet at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre in the championship game at 2 p.m. EDT.
The 2011 battle for the Champions Cup looks just like the 2010 title game in which Washington won 15-11 at their home floor at Comcast Arena in Everett, Wash. However this time around, Toronto will host the contest after having the better regular season record at 10-6.
Yet even with the home field advantage against a Stealth squad that finished the regular season at 8-8, it does not mean that the Rock will have an advantage in the game.
“They are the defending champs, they know how to win, plus they are healthy,” said Toronto head coach Troy Cordingley of the Stealth during Wednesday’s league conference call. “They had a lot of guys out of their lineup during the year, but now they are healthy and they have their go-to guys in there.”
The Stealth, who are looking to become the first back-to-back champions since the Rock did it in the 2002-03 seasons, were plagued by the injury bug throughout the year and only really had a roster full of healthy bodies during their first game, an 11-10 overtime victory against the Colorado Mammoth on Jan. 8.
Two of the bodies that will be in the lineup for Washington on Sunday will be defenseman Kyle Sorensen and forward Jeff Zywicki, who may be X-factor for the Stealth in the game. During the first game of the season, a healthy Zywicki scored three goals and two assists, but then missed most of year with a lower body injury. He played in two other games during the 2011 campaign, but he did not have the same impact as he was still hampered by the injury.
Turn a page to the playoffs, and Zywicki has been one of the best performers in the league. He has five goals and five assists in Washington’s two postseason games, including a three goal, three assist effort last week in the Stealth’s 10-8 win over the top overall seed Calgary Roughnecks in the Western Division Final.
“He’s been a big factor in our first two playoff games, there is no doubt,” said Washington head coach Chris Hall of Zywicki. “Jeff Zywicki is a premier lacrosse player in this league, a premier lacrosse player in the world. We missed him during the course of year.”
Along with Zywicki, the Washington offense will be led by Lewis Ratcliff, who had 41 goals during the regular season and six in the playoffs, and Rhys Duch, who scored 42 times during the year and sports four tallies in the postseason.
In last year’s championship game, Duch had three goals and eight assists for Washington, and he continued his clutch play in 2011 as he led the league with five game winning goals, two of which came in overtime.
“He has come by his ‘clutch Duch’ nickname in terms of scoring big goals for us,” Hall said of Duch. “He had an unbelievable monstrous game last year in the [championship] game against Toronto. He has scored a bunch of winners for us, and he is one of those guys that when the game is on the line, he wants the ball in his stick and he will tell you that.”
In order to pick up the victory, the Rock will need to limit the Washington offense, and according to Cordingley, want the win more than the Stealth do.
“We have to capitalize on the chances that are given,” Cordingley said. “In lacrosse, the golden opportunities are hard to come by and we are going to have to capitalize on those opportunities.”
Cordingley also said that the team is doing the little things that they were not doing at the end of the regular season when they lost their final three games and lost the top seed in the East to the Buffalo Bandits. Toronto got their revenge over Buffalo last week after they won 12-11 in the Eastern Division Final.
Sunday’s game will be the final contest for Toronto goaltender Bob Watson, who will be retiring after 15 seasons in the league, 14 of which were with the Rock franchise. During his time in the NLL, Watson has won five championships, a total of 119 games and has made 7174 saves (regular season and playoffs combined).
Cordingley said that the team wants to win their sixth overall championship for Watson, but they also want to win it for themselves as well.
“I would be a liar to say that the guys would not like to send him off to retirement on a positive note, but I think in our dressing room, we’ve worked very hard and want to win it for each other too,” Cordingley said. “Bob would be the first guy to say that it is a team game, and it will take all 20 guys who are playing in that game to pull the same way.”
Since the 2010 championship game, the Rock and the Stealth have only met once, on Apr. 1 in which Toronto won 13-12 after Stephan Leblanc scored the game winner in overtime. However, Washington still did not have a healthy team and let the game slip after they held the lead with nearly two minutes left to play.
The Stealth hope that they will not let another contest with the Rock slip out of their grasps this season.
Sunday’s championship game will be televised live at 2 p.m. EDT on VERSUS in the United States and on TSN in Canada.
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.