The Mammoth finally did it Friday night. They were the first to beat the undefeated Rush. They stopped the league juggernaut’s run at 14 wins to start the season. They put together a helluva game, holding Edmonton to just eight goals and doing what no team had been able to do in 2014: beat the consensus Cup favourites. You could excuse the Mammoth players for being happy with the result. Or even being downright ecstatic for that matter. It’s been a tough season in Denver. The club stumbled out of the gates, losing five of its first six games and struggling in every area on the floor.
Their play lead to a coaching change, with Bob Hamley being let go and replaced by a trio of former players in Chris Gill, Dan Stroup and Pat Coyle.
The Mammoth players responded to the shake-up and have slowly ramped up their game, culminating with their win Friday over Edmonton — at home in front of the Pepsi Center faithful. With just two games left in the season, the 6-10 Mammoth are in the driver’s seat for the third and final West playoff spot. They have two games left against Philly and Minny while the 4-11 Stealth face Philly, Edmonton and Calgary.
But while there may have been a celebration Friday night after the win, the Mammoth players seem done patting themselves on the back.
Veteran defender John Gallant was frank when asked about the victory.
“It’s satisfying no matter who you play,” said Gallant. “Holding them to eight goals (was good) but we didn’t necessarily look at it as they are undefeated and we held them to eight goals so it was a great job. We want to hold everybody to eight goals, to that standard.
“I’ve been around this league long enough to understand a win is a win. They are all difficult, especially at this time of the season. We were happy with that performance but we know we play two teams coming up who essentially are out of the playoffs and don’t have a lot to play for and those games mean just as much to us as playing Edmonton at home.”
It’s easy to forget many pundits and fans had left the Mammoth for dead not all that long ago.
So what’s changed?
First and foremost, the play of their defence, which is still a league-worst giving up an average of 12.75 goals per game. But since Coyle took over the backdoor there’s been a major improvement, which was on prime display against Edmonton.
“Pat has simplified our gameplan,” said Gallant. “That’s his style and I know from having played with him. It’s a very basic sort of setup he wants to accomplish and that’s what he’s done.
“We have a lot of guys who traditionally don’t have a lot of experience playing straight defence so he’s made things less complicated. Most importantly, I think, he’s held guys accountable for their play. I think in doing that he’s helped teach us to play defence.”
The next biggest area of improvement has been goaltending. Dillon Ward was stellar for the Mammoth Friday, stopping 42 of the 50 shots he faced from what is a balanced and effective Edmonton offence.
Drafted third overall, he was pegged as the team’s goaltender of the future. Only the future became right now.
“I felt pretty comfortable in net and the ball felt pretty big for me,” said Ward. “The saves were coming for me and I just tried to stay big and play my game and the defence did a great job in front me.”
Ward made a handful of highlight reel saves to keep his team ahead, a few of the jaw-dropping variety.
“I don’t know how I’d rank it compared to other games I’ve played but it’s definitely up there for one of my better games probably,” said Ward. “And it’s probably the best game I’ve played in the NLL so far. I just hope I can build on it.”
Much like the defence that plays in front of him, Ward tried to keep it simple as he and the team struggled early in the campaign.
“It was pretty frustrating for me personally, trying to get used to the bigger nets, smaller equipment — it’s just a different game. You need to change up your style a bit,” said Ward. “But it got to a point where all I could do is focus on my game. I know how to play lacrosse and I got to this level for a reason. I just had to stick with my game.”
When asked about his team’s defensive play on Friday, he was quick to credit them for standing tall in front of him.
“That was probably our strongest game defensively,” said Ward. “With Pat Coyle as our new defensive coach, the last few weeks he’s really been preaching trust and trust in each other. We’ve made some changes here and there and it’s really starting to come together.
“I think our defence is just really playing with a lot of confidence,” he continued. “They are playing like a unit. It’s exciting to see. We want to pressure and dictate (how offences play). There is a fine line between running around and being crazy and playing within our system and I think we played that line very well.”
The question now is can they keep playing like they did Friday night to secure a playoff berth and make a post-season run?
QUICK STICKS: The Roughnecks have made a habit of winning with some dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks this season (outscoring the K-Hawks, Bandits and Wings by a combined 18-3 in the final frame this season). It looked like that may be the case again Saturday night after they scored two straight to open the fourth quarter and tie the Rush at 11. This time, though, Edmonton stopped the run by scoring three straight of their own and then adding an empty netter for good measure … Speaking of Calgary and Edmonton, they are 1-2 in short-handed goals this season. The Riggers have score 10 in 16 games, while the Rush have nine in as many contests … One reason for the Stealth’s struggles this season: they are just 37.5% on the powerplay, a league low shared with the Bandits … Cody Jamieson, in 16 games, has already set a career high for points in a season with 96 (33g, 63a). He is five points behind Garrett Billings in the scoring race and four ahead of Shawn Evans. Last year Jamieson had 89 points (28g, 61a) in 16 games.The assistant managing editor of the Calgary Sun, Pilson began covering the NLL when the Roughnecks started in 2000. The longtime lacrosse player has been contributing to Inside Lacrosse ever since. Email him at email@example.com or go to CalgarySun.com.
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