The 2012 National Lacrosse League season didn’t start so well for the Minnesota Swarm. Then it got better. Then it wasn’t good again. Then better, then a slump, then much, much better. That’s about what you’d expect from a lacrosse team fielding 8, 9 and 10 rookies for each game and while it was apparent that this young group took some lumps along the way, what also was apparent that this young group discovered a chemistry that made it one of the NLL’s best, ending its season with a loss in the West Division final. Clearly, much more went right than went wrong for the Swarm.
A 5-3 start in what is a parity-filled league is rather impressive, especially considering the quality of some of those victories in the first half of the season. Beating Buffalo (by 8 goals) and Rochester at home is impressive enough, but notching victories on the road in Washington and Calgary served notice to the rest of the league that no matter how young the Swarm were, they were legit. It’s almost as if the Swarm were too young to know how good they were, or too naïve to believe that a team with so many rookies wasn’t supposed to be winning like this.
And in the 4-game stretch that followed that massive win over Calgary on March 3, it looked as though reality had caught up. Buffalo, Washington and Calgary all avenged losses and after Edmonton’s 1-goal win on March 31, the Swarm were reeling at 5-7. But Minnesota played 3 of its final 4 games at home and it was a road win at Philadelphia on April 6 that kick-started a 4-game win streak that carried a red-hot Swarm team into the playoffs. It was that momentum that carried the Swarm to their first playoff win in franchise history and into the Division final, where an even hotter Edmonton Rush team put the clamps on Minnesota’s group of young dreamers.
If you’re not quite sure where to start when it comes to looking at the Minnesota offense, you’re not alone. A lot of NLL defenses had the same problem last winter, and that’s what made the team so dangerous.
But really, it all does start with a veteran duo in Callum Crawford and Ryan Benesch. With Crawford on the right side and Benny on the left, these 2 were potent forces in their own right but they got plenty of help with scoring depth behind them. The balance kept defenses honest and it’s no coincidence that the team was 1-2 in the 3 games Benesch missed with injury. But for as much damage as Crawford and Benesch did, it was players like Jordan MacIntosh, Corbyn Tao, Jay Card and Joel Henry — all rookies — who worked the floor to create time and space for their veteran leaders, and themselves. No doubt, the rookies were aided greatly by their experience in Canadian major; MacIntosh, Tao and Henry all came into the NLL with extensive time in MSL or WLA and Card was no slouch in his junior days both in Ontario and B.C.
And speaking of veterans, Kevin Ross had a career year with 59 points (28-31) and his energy and determination was an integral part of the system in Minnesota. It all added up to an offense whose 202 goals were third-most in the NLL — yeah, third-most — and it by the time this unit found its consistent groove late in the season, it was a tough stop for any defense because of the many options Minnesota presented.
For as much as the rookies contributed on offense for Minnesota, they had an even bigger impact on defense. And it all started in goal. And that in itself was a big surprise considering the events that unfolded for that position.
Veteran Nick Patterson had the job to himself after Kevin Croswell was traded before the season started, and the Swarm took another veteran, Anthony Cosmo, in the Boston Blazers dispersal draft. But they also drafted Evan Kirk in the entry draft and signed Tyler Carlson as a free agent. When the dust settled, though, Cosmo never reported and was traded to Buffalo. Patterson was released after 1 game and that left Kirk and Carlson splitting time to form a surprisingly effective duo. Kirk lead all primary goalies with a goals-against average of 9.81 and a save percentage of .807. And Carlson was 5-2 with a 12.04 goals-against.
Of course, not all the credit goes to Kirk and Carlson, because whoever was in goal had a very capable stable of runners in front of him. Veterans like Andrew Suitor, Richard Morgan, Jeff Gilbert, Andrew Watt, Joe Cinosky and Mitch Belisle manned ship while rookies like Nik Bilic, Brendan Doran, Dan Ball and Jordan MacIntosh took charge in their own right.
The unit led the West Division with 199 forced turnovers and as bad as that is for opponents, it’s even worse when you consider the opportunities that presented to the Minnesota transition players. Make no mistake, the Swarm made opponents pay in that department. When you have guys like Kirk and Carlson already making dynamic saves, giving Minnesota’s quick legs extra chances to move the ball puts you deeper in the hole you were already in.
It’s called the man-advantage for a reason and when it comes to special teams, the Minnesota ran with the middle of the pack in just about every category. The power play clicked at 48%, sixth-best in the league although the Swarm probably wanted to see bigger numbers from that unit since it had a league-high 106 opportunities. In 43 chances, the downers came in at respectable 54%, which puts them at fourth-best in the NLL.
The brightest spot for the Swarm were those young transition legs, which scored a league-high 14 short-handed goals although that high-risk, high-reward mantra rang true to the tune of 10 short-handed goals against, second-most in the NLL. Many coaches might harp on the missed opportunities on power plays that kept the Swarm bogged in the middle of that statistical category, but the silver lining there is that the Swarm could have been worse. But they weren’t.
The impressive thing about the 27 different players listed on statistical roster for the Swarm is that 21 scored at least 1 goal. And of the 6 who did not score a goal, 3 were goalies, so that leaves just 3 runners without a goal. That’s a fine display, at least offensively, of what the Swarm were able to put on the floor as lineups invariably shift week to week as they do in the NLL.
The Swarm played no less than 12 rookies throughout the season, some of them filling injury gaps for a game or two, others playing major roles. It’s a real testament to the coaching staff that got the newbies working so well with the established veterans. Joe Sullivan took over as coach after Mike Lines was fired after the team’s 3-3 start, but Aime Caines and Bobby Keast deserve just as much credit for their work as assistants.
It was evident the Swarm played for the name on the front of their sweater and that emphasis on teamwork is what made the unit from front to back work so smoothly. Egos were set aside for the greater good, and the result was the franchise’s first-ever playoff victory, which sets the stage for higher expectations down the road.
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