April 28, 2010 - National Lacrosse League (NLL) - Washington Stealth
Everett, Wash. - The Washington Stealth finished the 2010 National Lacrosse League regular season schedule with a league-best 11-5 record. But this weekend, when the Stealth take on the Minnesota Swarm in the opening round of postseason play, regular season records are thrown out the window.
The eight-team, single-elimination NLL postseason tournament is set to begin on May 1. The top four teams in the East and West Divisions will do battle for the next three weeks, with only one earning the NLL's top prize: the Champion's Cup.
For the Stealth, who earned the top overall seed in the tournament, the road to the Champion's Cup first goes through the Minnesota Swarm. The two teams met twice in the regular season, with the home team winning both contests. The Stealth took the first game at the Comcast Arena by a score of 12-9 on February 5. It was the sixth straight win to open the season for the Stealth. One week later however, in the Xcel Energy Center, the Swarm handed the Stealth their first loss of the season by a 16-12 margin. But according to Stealth Head Coach Chris Hall, those games have no bearing on this weekend's matchup.
"It's not about revenge or anything like that," said Hall. "It's not about them, it's about us. It's about what we're doing and controlling our own destiny. We need to be ready, willing and able to put together our best performance of the season."
What the Stealth looks to do is unleash the power of the league's highest-scoring offense. Led by MVP candidate Lewis Ratcliff, who was tops in the league with 46 goals and finished second with 97 points during the regular season, the Stealth is averaging over thirteen goals per game. Second-year forward Rhys Duch and perennial All-Star Jeff Zywicki are both averaging over five points per game with 86 and 71 points, respectively.
But for the Stealth, the concern isn't the ability to score, it's playing consistent lacrosse.
"We need to come out and play a full sixty minutes," said Ratcliff. "We didn't play well against [Minnesota] in either game this season. We can't look at their record and think it will automatically be a win."
The Swarm finished the season as the four-seed in the West with a 5-11 record, including a six-game losing streak to end the regular season. Despite their record, the Minnesota offense finished fourth in the NLL in scoring with two players among the top five in points. Callum Crawford has enjoyed a breakout season, finishing third in the league with 96 points. Aaron Wilson wasn't far behind in fifth with 89 points.
"They have top offensive talent and a goalie that is more than capable of taking over a game," said Stealth Captain Jason Bloom. "More than anything though, it's playoff lacrosse now. It's going to be more physical and intense every game from here on out."
Physical play is the norm when these two squads face one another. In two games, the teams combined for 193 penalty minutes, many of which came during a bench-clearing brawl in Minnesota. With that many penalties, special teams will undoubtedly be a factor.
"They are going to try to muck it up with us," said Ratcliff on what to expect from a physical Minnesota team. "We need to be smart and disciplined and our power play needs to make them pay when they give us opportunities."
The Stealth power play finished third in the league this season, converting on over 51% of their extra-man opportunities. The Swarm power play was also stellar throughout the season, just a fraction of a percentage point higher in the rankings. The Stealth hold the edge on the penalty kill, leading the league with a 69% kill rate compared to the Swarm, who sit in seventh at 55%.
The bottom line however, is that those regular season stats have little meaning once the ball is dropped at the Comcast Arena on May 1. The winner moves on to the West Division Finals on May 8, the loser goes home with the sour taste of defeat lingering until next winter.
The Washington Stealth takes on the Minnesota Swarm in the West Division Semifinals at the Comcast Arena at Everett on May 1 at 7:30pm. Tickets start at just $13 and are available by calling 877-MY-75-TIX or online at www.stealthlax.com.