The season was going downhill for the Washington Stealth before it even started. The announcement that coach Chris Hall was to temporarily step aside as he battled throat cancer caught many by surprise and it apparently had quite an effect on the Stealth. The team started slowly, winning just 1 of its first 6 games. Yet the team that had been to the previous 2 National Lacrosse League championship games wasn’t offering excuses. It was offering a hard look at itself and although Hall did return to the bench, the Stealth just couldn’t seem to get back on track. Inconsistency was its biggest foe, along with mistakes of mysterious origin. Let’s examine.
There are no easy outs in a 9-team league but when 3 of your first 5 games are at home, you expect your record to be better than 1-5. Especially if you’re a team that’s been to the last 2 Champion’s Cup games.
But that’s where the Washington Stealth found themselves after 6 games last season and although they offered glimpses of what they could be down the stretch, they never really recovered. They lost 8 of their next 11 games and were the lone team left out of the playoff picture. The Stealth never won consecutive games but they did appear to find their groove mid-season, winning 3 of 5 game that included victories over Toronto on the road and Minnesota at home. But the team lost its final 4 games of the season to seal its fate.
Inconsistency was Washington’s biggest enemy and mounting injuries didn’t help the team form any sort of chemistry as the Stealth were 1-2 in overtime games and 1-4 in games decided by a goal.
The injuries spared no unit in Washington last season and the O lost a combined 17 games as Rhys Duch (2 games), Cliff Smith (9) and Jeff Zywicki (6) all missed time. That’s a very potent trio and when an opposing defense doesn’t have those sticks to worry about, along with the trade departure of Luke Wiles, it makes it easier to key on the remaining guys like Lewis Ratcliff and Dean Hill.
Ratcliff’s numbers were down to 79 points after clearing 90-plus the previous 2 seasons, and Hill finished with 38 points, his best season since 2007. But just 4 of his points came in the first 4 games, contributing to the team’s slow start. The addition of Athan Iannucci was supposed to spark the offense and it did to an extent, but the loss of Paul Rabil, to get AI, hurt the unit as a whole. That was evident by the team’s 179 goals-for after it scored 203 and 211 in the 2 seasons prior.
Only 2 teams in the NLL scored fewer than the Stealth’s 179 last year. It was a hot and cold season for the front-door guys, who scored 12 or more goals in 5 games, including 20 in 1 game, but also were held to single digits in 5 other games.
Defense and goaltending
Only 2 opponents were held to single digits in 2012 and the 204 goals-allowed were second-most in the NLL. That’s the kind of stuff that will happen when defenders like Mike Grimes (3 games), Eric Martin (4), Chris McElroy (3) and Kyle Sorensen (3) go down with injuries.
Throw in goalie Tyler Richards missing 4 games and the team not having Matt Roik (traded to Toronto) to lean on, and the constant juggling of the lineup can bring on the sort of problems the Stealth encountered. And like the O, the D just couldn’t maintain any sort of momentum. After holding Buffalo to 10 goals in an OT road win, the Stealth gave up 12, 15 and 15 in their next 3 games, all losses. Then came that stretch with 3 wins in 5 games, where the Stealth held foes to an average of 10.6 goals in the 5 games. In the following 4 games to wrap up the regular season, Stealth foes averaged 15 per game.
The Stealth by no means rolled over during the 2012 season. There was just too much fluctuation from game to game as to which unit was going to show up.
The power play was No. 3 in 2010 and No. 1 in 2011, but slipped to No. 7 last year at 46%. The killers, at 57.3% last winter, were second-best in the NLL. What’s that tell us? Not much, really.
Edmonton (32.5%) and Rochester (40.5%) were the worst teams in the NLL on the power play, yet both played in the Champion’s Cup game. But when the 5-man sets on O and D struggle the way they were in Washington, the Stealth needed all the extra help they could get and even though the uppers scored 46 power-play goals and the downers allowed just 35, the Stealth needed even more from both units and it just didn’t happen.
It’s a situational thing here, too. If you’re leading a game or even close, you tend not to panic. But if you’re playing catchup, there’s an urgency that can affect your judgment when it comes to shot selection and the choices aren’t always the best, especially when you’re rushing and lose sight of the fact that you can only score 1 goal per shot.
The mood was somber from the outset at both ends of the floor as the team learned before the season that coach Chris Hall was out indefinitely as he battled cancer. Hall promised he would be back and kept his word, although the team was 1-5 by the time he returned.
Hall returned to a team he barely recognized, stating week after week that the mistakes his team was making were elementary in nature and, quite simply, were mistakes that professionals should not be making. And just when the Stealth thought they had one problem figured out, another cropped up.
The constant shuffling of the lineup to adjust for injuries did the team no favors and it’s not that the Stealth had players coming in with no talent. The talent was top-notch. It’s just that it takes time for talent to gel and that’s what presented the biggest challenge for the Stealth.
It was a hard dose of reality and the team battled to the very end to avoid being “that” team, but ultimately it all caught up and the team that had played for the last 2 NLL titles was the surprise team left out of last year’s dance.Chavez is an avid lacrosse player in Rochester and a journalist for the Democrat and Chronicle as well as a longtime Inside Lacrosse contributor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to RochesterSports.com.
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