The 2013 National Lacrosse League season is underway and a couple of surprising stories have come to light in the early going. The upstart Philadelphia Wings have carved out two huge divisional wins in two tries while the Calgary Roughnecks have swung and missed twice at home in the Saddledome. I’m not sure which team is a bigger surprise but seeing the Roughnecks drop a comfortable fourth-quarter lead en-route to an overtime loss to the Mammoth of Colorado doesn’t speak volumes of the Roughies home advantage or last-minute defense. Not far removed on the rags to riches end of the story is where you’ll find the 2-1 Washington Stealth who needed a winning start more than any team heading into 2013. Our defending champs in Rochester are similar to Calgary, still looking to find their rhythm at 0-2. So how important is it to get off to a good start?
Obviously everyone wants to get out of the gate looking good and feeling certain about the effects of their pre-season workouts. The flip side of this situation is many teams are talking about not peaking too soon in the wake of last year’s NLL final between a 6-10 team and the champions, who ended the year less than .500 at 7-9.
Momentum is a real issue in the lacrosse world. You can really get on a roll confidence-wise but when the bottom of the barrel falls out people will be scrambling for answers or a hiding place. It can get ugly and it can get ugly quick. Look no further than the home losses for Calgary and Toronto or the full-game drubbing in Washington this past Sunday. The good news for the Stealth is that the old adage of “what goes up must come down” works in both directions. They have experienced this in the past and consistency is what will quell the questions that will visit again should they lose a few more games. It’s obvious they need their big-time goalie to be their best, but that goes for every team in the NLL.
All these early season happenings don’t indicate much really. Rochester and Calgary can’t read into a couple of close losses and Philadelphia has to have learned its lesson last year when it blew a tire on the home stretch. Washington is the first 2013 team with a key injury that could rob them of some wins if it is a serious injury with Tyler Richards.
In 1998, the NLL final was a showdown between cross state rivals of Maryland and Pennsylvania. The Wings took the Thunder in two straight in the NLL’s only best-of-three series. Baltimore had acquired a new owner in 1998, Dennis Townsend. Townsend made his mark right away in the new NLL by stealing Gary Gait from the Wings, making that final even more sweet for the Philadelphia. The Thunder was favoured to win it all and even when Baltimore fell just shy of a championship, it turned over about 10-12 bodies to start the 1999 season.
I will never forget the way this Baltimore team started the 1999 schedule. The Thunder bolted out of the gate in 5th gear and in succession it crushed Rochester 20-13, Toronto 21-10 and then smoked my Bandits a week later 22-15. Baltimore dominated its way to a 5-0 start. The Thunder were fueled by big athletic USA players with little box experience. That never bothered Townsend, who was brimming with confidence and openly interjected with head coach John Tucker while getting involved with coaching, drafting and even practicing with his team on occasion.
Townsend had some peculiar ideas he wanted to work out and was known to take over a practice drill and talk until everyone was feeling a chill from standing so long. Predictably, the Thunder struggled down the stretch and dropped a first-round playoffs match to Rochester. I have never seen a team go from total command to average in such fashion. The rest of the league had figured out how to counter their speed and size and expose their defensive weaknesses. It was that simple.
Nothing in the modern era resembles that team from those days so I don’t expect that Philadelphia and its American talent will implode at a later date. The realization is the regular season will be a grind for all nine NLL teams with a few peaks and valleys for all.
If there is any early indicator of eventual success it may be the ability to weather the storms “in game” as some teams have managed this far better than others. Buffalo, Philadelphia and Colorado have shown some gutsy performances in come-from-behind victories. Toronto hit the road opening weekend and played 120 minutes of consistent, solid lacrosse for two Ws. You can argue the Rock played 165 minutes of sound lacrosse factoring in the first 45 minutes from their home opener, which indicates it should be just fine. Edmonton looks to have that defense in order once again so expect it to be tough all year long in their fight for a playoff spot.
All of my investigations don’t lead to much but I’m trying to make some sense of it all. With no expansion teams or weak links, parity is here to stay in the NLL. Finding weaknesses is the way to attack your opponents and everyone will be busy watching video of the young games of this season to find them.
Special teams are a big story too. I see that the power plays are up across the league while man downs are suffering. Goaltending hasn’t been as strong league-wide as years past but again, it’s too early to judge any trends. Safe to assume you don’t want to be the most penalized team or your odds will decrease exponentially. Also safe to assume picking the one team that won’t make the playoffs in April is like finding a needle in a haystack.
So fans, a good start is nice but a strong finish and late-season momentum is about the best you can work for to hedge your bet to win an NLL championship.O'Neill is a three-time Mann Cup winner and former general manager of the Philadelphia Wings (2001-2004) and Minnesota Swarm (2004-2010), where he was twice named NLL GM of the Year (2007, 2008).
Rate This Story: