The 2016 National Lacrosse League regular season has ended and what was unthinkable before this season started has happened: Both the Toronto Rock and Rochester Knighthawks have missed the playoffs.
The much improved New England Black Wolves and Georgia Swarm have earned the second and third playoff spots in the East. In the West, the Calgary Roughnecks clinched the last playoff spot.
Coming into the weekend, there was still a chance for both the Vancouver Stealth and Rochester Knighthawks to squeeze into the playoffs. Vancouver needed a couple of wins and with only one game on the schedule Friday night the spotlight was on the Vancouver Stealth vs. Colorado Mammoth game. In the end, it was the veteran superstar John Grant Jr. who scored a couple of clutch goals in the fourth quarter for the Mammoth when it looked like Vancouver was taking hold of the game.
Vancouver’s 11-10 loss took some of the drama out of the rest of the weekend but not all.
While Saturday’s game between the Stealth and the Georgia Swarm meant nothing to the Stealth, the Swarm were still playing for their playoff lives and their 10-1 first-half lead sealed the deal as they went on to a 14-6 victory and an invite to the playoffs. You have to wonder if the Rochester Knighthawks were aware of the score in Georgia while they were playing the Saskatchewan Rush.
The Rochester game started about 30 minutes after the start of the game in Georgia and by the time Rochester took a 4-1 early in the second quarter I’m sure most people in Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena knew that Georgia was running away with its game. Saskatchewan scored 7 straight in the second quarter and never gave up the lead as it went on for a 13-9 victory.
In Buffalo, the battle for first place between the Bandits and the New England Black Wolves was a resounding victory for Buffalo. Buffalo won by a score of 12-7. The victory not only gave the Bandits first in the East but also the top seed in the NLL, which means home floor advantage throughout the playoffs.
Dhane Smith scored 4 goals and 2 assists finish the season with a record-breaking 72 goals and 137 points. His counterpart on the Wolves, Shawn Evans, left the game with an unspecified injury in the second quarter. He had 1 goal at that point and he was shut down for the rest of the weekend.
On Sunday, in a rather anticlimactic ending to the regular season, the Rochester Knighthawks ended their 6-game losing streak by defeating the New England Black Wolves (playing without Evans) by a 10-8.
The other game played this weekend was between the Calgary Roughnecks and the Toronto Rock. With so many games having playoff implications this weekend, you can easily forget how entertaining a lacrosse game can be when it is played for sheer pride. Sometimes athletes say they are playing for pride but those are just words. When it is real you can watch 5 minutes of a game and feel it. That was the case in the Calgary Saddledome as the Calgary Roughnecks and the Toronto Rock played as if a championship were on the line. At the end, it was rookie Wes Berg who scored the winner to give Calgary its first OT victory of the season but it was the effort by both teams that reminded me why I fell in love with this sport over 40 years ago.
For the last time this season, let’s check out the Power Rankings.
1 (1). Buffalo (13-5). In front of 19,070 fans the Buffalo Bandits finished a record-breaking season as they defeated their first place threat, the New England Black Wolves by a score of 12-7. Buffalo will get a bye to the East Division championships in two weeks. The only negative on the night was that Anthony Cosmo left with an apparent knee injury 10 minutes into the game. David DiRuscio filled in nicely but the Bandits would like to have their veteran goalie as they take a run at their first championship since 2008.
2 (2). Saskatchewan (13-5). After missing last weekend’s game, Zack Greer was back in the lineup and scored 5 goals for the Rush in their 13-9 victory over the Rochester Knighthawks. Greer has missed two games this season and the Rush has lost them both. You can bet they have their full lineup ready when they host the Western Finals in two weeks.
3. (3). Colorado (12-6). The Mammoth defeated the Vancouver Stealth 11-10 in a very entertaining game on Friday night. Colorado was playing without Adam Jones so Callum Crawford (8 assists ) and John Grant Jr. (3 goals and 3 assists) carried the offensive load for the Mammoth, but a healthy Dillon Ward could be the difference maker in the playoffs as the Mammoth get set to play the Calgary Roughnecks for what seems the 1,000th time in the playoffs this weekend. Ward finished the season with the best save percentage and second best GAA.
4. (4). New England (10-6). The New England Black Wolves lost to the Buffalo Bandits on 12-7 on Saturday and 10-8 to the Rochester Knighthawks in a meaningless game on Sunday in which they rested No. 1 goaltender Evan Kirk as well as Shawn Evans. The big question will be regarding Evans’s health as they host the Georgia Swarm on Saturday. He has been their undisputed leader this season and they will need him if they want to continue their great season.
5. (5) Calgary (8-10). Calgary defeated the Toronto Rock 17-16 on Saturday night in a very entertaining lacrosse game. Curtis Dickson became the fourth player in NLL history to score more than 60 goals as his four goals gave him 61 on the season and rookie Wes Berg provided a secondary threat from the right shooters as he had his best game of the season with 6 goals, including the winner in OT. It was Calgary’s 5th OT game of the season and its first win. Goaltender Mike Poulin was pulled twice for the Roughnecks, but it would be my bet that he will still be the starter when they head to Denver. The Roughnecks chose to rest lefty Dane Dobbie. They are 1-4 without Dobbie in the lineup.
6. (6). Georgia (8-10). Georgia stormed out of the gate on Saturday, taking a 10-1 lead and defeated the Vancouver Stealth by a final score of 14-6. The victory meant that the Swarm earned their own playoff berth by going 4-1 in their last 5 games. In a season with so many outstanding rookies, Randy Staats was deadliest scorer as his 7 points allowed him to finish the season with a record 95 points. Fourth year player Shayne Jackson had 4 goals and 5 assists to finish with a career-best 40 goals and 83 points. The Swarm will travel to New England to play the Black Wolves in a historic playoff game.
7. (8). Rochester (7-11). I really debated moving Rochester up since its only win in the last 7 games was a meaningless game on Sunday. After losing 6 straight games, including Saturday’s 13-9 loss to the Saskatchewan Rush, the Knighthawks finally got a victory playing their last game of the season against the against the New England Black Wolves by a score of 11-9. Like the Toronto Rock, the Knighthawks will have to look hard at what needs to be done to get this team back in the playoffs.
8. (8) Vancouver (5-13). The Stealth played a tremendous game on Friday but came up short as they lost to the Colorado Mammoth 11-10. On Saturday, the Stealth played their last game of the season against the Georgia Swarm. Whether it was the travel, the fact that they sat out a few starters (Rory Smith, Garrett Billings, Matt Beers), or possibly the team was mentally and physically exhausted, the Stealth came out flat against a team with something to play for. This game was over early and the final score was 14-6 for Georgia. Although Vancouver may have been the most inconsistent team this season, there are plenty of positives when this team is healthy including Rhys Duch who scored a career high 111 points.
9. (9) Toronto Rock (5-13). On Saturday the Toronto Rock played one of their most inspiring games of the season with a lineup very different than what they opened the season with. The Rock lost to Calgary 17-16 in OT. They got 7 goals and 6 assists from Rob Hellyer, who finished the season with franchise tying record of 114 points. Rookie Turner Evans had 4 goals and 5 assists and fellow rookie Kyle Aquin had his first goal in his second NLL game. The Toronto Rock sealed their fate when they lost their first 6 games of the season.They needed to be near perfect to make the playoffs after that start and the combination of injuries plus the surprising seasons from Georgia and New England made the playoffs an impossible uphill climb. Owner GM Jamie Dawick will have a lot of tough decisions to make in the off season to retool this proud franchise.