The playoffs are approaching. With just three weekends remaining in the 2014 National Lacrosse League regular season, four of the six teams that will be taking part in the post-season have been decided. Things in the West Division look like they’ll go down to the wire between Colorado and Vancouver for the third and final spot. In the East Division, though, everything could be decided this Saturday when the Philadelphia Wings travel to Toronto to take on the Rock. It’s a do or die game for Philly, as Toronto can clinch third place in the division with a win. That’s because a Toronto victory would put them two games ahead of the Wings with two games each to play, meaning the best Philadelphia could do is a tie in the standings, and Toronto would hold the tiebreaker by having won two of the three games between the teams this season.
So what does Philadelphia have to do to win the game and give themselves and even chance at making the playoffs? The key will probably be scoring goals. That flies in the face of the familiar refrain that defence is the key to success. But the Wings haven’t necessarily been great on D when they’ve won games this year. Ws have come when they’ve put up a bunch of goals. A case in point is their 14-13 win over Toronto when the Rock came to visit on March 22. Philly followed that up with a 14-12 win over Colorado the following week.
That’s not to say the Wings wouldn’t love to keep the Rock off the score sheet and will be aiming to do so. But the reality of this season for both teams is that they’ve given up way more goals than they’d like to. Toronto has allowed 189 in 15 games for an average of 12.6 per game, worst in the league other than Colorado (196 goals, also in 15 games). Philly is marginally better, having allowed 184 goals for an average of 12.3 per game.
So it’s safe to say that both teams can be scored on. The difference that jumps out at you in the standings is goals for. Toronto can put the ball in the net; they’ve scored 188 goals, just one fewer than they’ve allowed. Philadelphia, on the other hand, has scored just 166. And when they haven’t scored, they haven’t won. They don’t have any 9-8 defensive battles to their credit. They did hold Minnesota and Vancouver to 8 and 9 goals, respectively, in wins early in the season. But they scored 15 goals in each of those wins and, frankly, both the Swarm and Stealth were in the midst of prolonged funks at the time.
Toronto is in no such funk, having crushed Vancouver 17-9 last week. The loss of Garrett Billings will certainly hurt Toronto’s offence, but they managed to score 8 goals after he went down with a knee injury on Saturday and they have plenty of talent and veteran leadership. They may not be the same offence without Billings, but expect them to be able to put some balls in the net.
So Philadelphia needs to score. And, unless they can get another monster night like the one that Kevin Crowley had in the win over Toronto (he scored 6 goals, 3 assists and was dominant all night long), the best way to achieve that is through balance. The problem when they haven’t been scoring has generally been not enough players contributing to the success of the offence. And Philadelphia definitely has players who can play big roles, from veterans Jordan Hall and Tracey Kelusky to rookies Garrett Thul and Pat Saunders. There’s also Kyle Buchanan, who’s tied with Hall for the team scoring lead, and Ryan Ward.
That they need everyone to contribute may seem like an obvious point to make, but it’s about more than just players scoring. It’s about players getting looks and taking shots. When one or two players are taking the majority of the shots, it’s generally easier to contain an offence. That wasn’t the case on Crowley’s big night, when he took 17 shots and nobody else had more than six. But that was more a case of a guy clearly feeling it and everyone knowing it made sense to feed him. In that situation, everyone gets to feel like they’re a part of the offence because they are helping the hot hand to do his thing.
But even the most unselfish player in the game wants to feel like he’s contributing. That means ball movement is crucial mentally as well as strategically, and shot distribution can be a factor in getting everyone on board. Like so many teams, Philly is more likely to be successful when they are moving the ball and getting all their offensive players involved. When it becomes too obvious who’s going to shoot, they don’t do as well.
No great insight, perhaps, but still a key factor in whether the Wings will be able to pull out a win in Toronto and keep their playoff hopes alive beyond this weekend. So when you tune in for the game Saturday, keep an eye on how the ball is moving and where the shots are coming from. It should tell you a lot about how good a chance they’ll have to win the game. Unless Crowley or someone else can blow up for a career night again. The problem with the latter scenario is that it’s pretty hard to game plan for.Stamp is a TV sports announcer and lacrosse lover whose skill set made him a defender but who always dreamed of being a goal-scorer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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