Not much separates the Knighthawks and Stealth as they battle for NLL supremacy

Marty O'Neill
Marty O'Neill

The National Lacrosse League championship game is 24 hours away and it is a true statement that the season has come full circle from the stand-alone game that was played in Everett on Jan. 5 between the same two teams competing in Langley tomorrow. That game ended in a 13-12 come from behind Washington victory that preceeded a 7-6 low scoring affair on Feb.2 in Blue Cross Arena that favored the home team. These teams are as tight as they come. The compelling storyline has the defending champions playing last year’s only playoff non-participant. These two teams have navigated a much different path to Langley if you consider the ups and downs from the past two NLL regular seasons.

Washington could be accused of taking a Cinderella path but this is its third trip to the championship game in 4 years and that has to reveal this team really had an off year in 2012 and nothing more. Changes were made which placed it firmly on track for playoff competition and another deep run in 2013.

The Stealth has a knack for winning big games and it is the leaders of this group that should be heralded. Rhys Duch, Tyler Richards, Mike Grimes and Bobby Snider are forces in their domains. They are the ones who pushed them past Edmonton’s top notch defense and Calgary’s league-leading offense. To be the best you have to beat the best and that is exactly what Washington will have done if it finishes the job Saturday. I state that its path was the toughest route to the final.

Rochester has been steady over the course of two seasons but it hasn’t been world beaters. What the K-Hawks have created is much the same formula as the Stealth and the Rush, a balanced team.

These teams have offenses that boast seven strong players that produce consistency and functional power plays. Their defenses are able to transition, but work hard to shut it down for 30 seconds and labor in front of very strong goaltending which gives way to their man-short abilities, also high end.

When the defense slips, the goaltending in Rochester and Washington is the best in my opinion. Outside of the faceoff circle these teams are very evenly matched.

The focus for games like these will be on the goalies or the big names of Athan Iannucci, Rhys Duch, Dan Dawson and Cody Jamieson. I’m waiting to see who the next players are to step up and take a role in history. Last weekend it was Justin Salt, a sixth-round draft pick i 2012, who continually found himself on the Calgary doorstep in transition while making good on two attempts in a one-goal game. Over in Rochester, Craig Point picked up his pace to haunt his old team with 4 goals when the Rochester offense was a question mark due to injuries. Point factored into the K-Hawks’ 2012 playoff run with some clutch goals and is someone the Stealth shouldn’t ignore.

When it’s all done and said I will be looking for the player that made his mark in the big game. My top 3 picks from each team? Mike Accursi, Cory Vitarelli and Joe Walters for Rocho. Brett Bucktooth, Cliff Smith and Jeff Moleski for the Stealth.

Keys to this game for Washington will be finding a way to score on man-up against the stingy Hawks PK. Creating transition will also be a challenge just like it was for the Swarm last week but if anyone can do it out of the back end, it’s the Stealth. Team speed goes to the Stealth and they must use it to counter Rochester’s plug-it-up style.

For the Knighthawks, they need to find ways to break down the faceoffs and Bobby Snider. After that it’s really a matter of getting their defense on the floor to secure the middle of the zone and force shots from the alleys as they do so well. This means the offense can’t get caught napping or admiring shots. In 5-on-5 situations, I do like the Hawks offense. They have the tools to break you down in many ways and it will be a huge test for the newer Stealth defenders unless Washington shortens its bench.

All in all, the 2013 Champion’s Cup game promises to be a tight battle of the nail-biting kind. Both teams are working on dynasty status and will be at their best. If I had to say I’ll pick Washington because it has the feel of a team of destiny but ask me tomorrow and I may have changed my mind. Not much separating these two clubs. This is a game you don’t want to miss!

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).

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