The NLL scheduling gods must have been colluding when they decided to pencil the Vancouver Warriors and Colorado Mammoth a back-to-back home-and-home series in the final month to decide the season series and give one team a leg up in the playoff race.
"I talk to Pat Coyle [Mammoth Coach] quite a bit and I said to him in mid-January 'this back-to-back weekend is going to be huge for one of our teams'" said Warriors head coach Chris Gill. "We were joking about it, but now it's come down to that."
The Warriors and Mammoth have identical 3-8 records entering this weekend's NLL action. They wrap their season series next Friday and Saturday night in Vancouver and Denver. Gill isn't thinking that far ahead yet though, as the 7-4 New England Black Wolves make their only trip to the west coast, Saturday night at Rogers Arena 7 PM PT.
"First we have to take care of business this weekend," said Gill. "At the end of the day we can't fall on our face in every other game but win those two against Colorado. We'll worry about next weekend when it comes."
Vancouver holds the 4th and lowest seed in the NLL West Division based on their 11-10 overtime win against 5th and last place Colorado at Rogers Arena in January. Earning the tie-breaker next weekend would be crucial to their playoff hopes. The teams above them, Saskatchewan, San Diego and Calgary all have 6 wins. Colorado faces Calgary this weekend.
The Warriors return home tomorrow night for the first time in a month, coming off a bye week and a 13-10 loss to the San Diego Seals where the Warriors weren't as physically dominating as they were in February.
"Front end, back end, we weren't dictating and we were on our heels last game. We let them set up whatever they wanted and that won't make any team successful," said Gill.
The Warriors have only played 2 games in the past month, with two of their bye weeks in close proximity but will feel good about getting back downtown for a St. Patrick's Day party at Rogers Arena.
"We're excited. We're building a great fan base and we're having some great games at home," said Gill. "Maybe not the results we wanted but they've been some intense games and there is good buzz around team when we're playing at home. If we're in a playoff stretch right now, there is no better place to start than at home and we're excited about it."
The playoff theme comes up a lot for Gill as he understands that all 7 remaining games will determine his team's fate. The Warriors staff has already implemented a playoff mind set into the group to help them prepare for the weeks ahead.
"For us, playoffs started last game and it wasn't a good result. So we're focusing on what it takes to win a game, playoff mentality, buying in every shift and sacrificing your body for the player beside you - like you would do in the NLL Finals."
The game this weekend is the first of four down the stretch against an eastern opponent. It is still to be determined if New England star Callum Crawford who leads the league in goals (34) and points (81) will be in the line-up as he appeals a 6 game suspension for a dangerous hit on Toronto's Brad Kri on February 24th.
"The focus this weekend is about us, committing to our systems, coaches preparing players, everything that's in our control is what we're focusing on this week," said Gill.
"We could easily be .500, but we're not. It's frustrating but we put ourselves in that spot. For us, it wasn't where we wanted to be at this point in the season but as long as we're in the playoff race, that's the big goal for us and we're in that battle."
One key to victory Saturday night will be getting sniper Logan Schuss hot again. The Ladner lefty hasn't scored in 2 games despite taking 27 shots on goal.
"I feel bad for him," said Gill. "He's getting great opportunities; they're just not falling for him. It's just a matter of time until he has a big 5 or 6 goal night. We've spoken to him a lot and sometimes guys can get into their own heads. I'm expecting a big night from him this week."
The last time Schuss went 2 games without a goal, he ended the slump with a 4 goal performance against Colorado, including the overtime game winner.
Mitch Jones continues to lead the team in goals (24) and points (55) but it's been the consistent scoring from 32-year-old Jordan McBride that has helped balance the attack for Vancouver with 22 goals in just 9 games. He spent the past 4 seasons fighting to get back to the NLL.
"He's a baller. Some guys just need a chance," said Gill. "He dropped weight in the off season and looked really good. Everyone talks about the outside shot that he has, but I knew he was unbelievable on the crease. He's added another dimension to his game that maybe he forgot he had. He's dynamic and he's capitalizing on his opportunities."
Goaltender Eric Penney sits 3rd in the NLL with a .790 save percentage. Vancouver started veteran Aaron Bold (.749) last game. Bold spent last season with New England.
If the playoffs are on now for Vancouver, then pouncing on an unfamiliar eastern opponent from 5000 kilometers away potentially playing without an MVP caliber player is a great place to start.
All NLL action is free to watch this weekend via BR Live.
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