The Washington Stealth has represented the Western Division in each of the previous two National Lacrosse League Championship Games. Last season, the Stealth’s road to the final went through the Calgary Roughnecks and this Saturday, the two teams square off for the first time since the 2011 Western Division Final at the Comcast Arena at Everett.
The Stealth and Roughnecks have developed a heated rivalry over the years as the teams have perennially done battle for alpha dog status in the West. The Roughnecks finished the 2011 regular season atop the division standings with an 11-5 record, including a pair of wins over the Stealth. The Stealth finished at 8-8, but caught fire in the playoffs on the way to a second consecutive Western Division title.
“There’s not a lot of love lost between these two teams,” said Stealth assistant coach Art Webster, who will lead the team in this game as Head Coach Chris Hall completes his treatment for cancer. “For the past three or four years, we’ve been the top two teams in the West. There’s a lot of pride on both sides and a lot of respect for one another; it’s not hard to get fired up for these games.”
The Stealth will need to be fired up for this one as the Roughnecks have already proven this season that they have a team that will be competing for the 2012 NLL title. Last weekend, Calgary began its 2012 campaign with a 12-9 victory over the Toronto Rock. The Roughnecks’ leading scorer a year ago, Dane Dobbie, got off to a hot start with six points (3g, 3a) in the game.
Dobbie leads a balanced offensive attack, which returns its top five scorers from a season ago. Reigning NLL MVP Jeff Shattler is an offensive-minded transition player that posted 75 points (29g, 46a) last year and veteran forward Scott Ranger tallied 61 points on 29 goals and 32 assists in 2011.
“Calgary has a lot of threats on offense,” said Webster. “They can score goals from in tight, the outside or in transition and we saw that in the game against Toronto.”
The Calgary offense will present an early season test for the Stealth defense, which is led goaltender Tyler Richards. After splitting time in goal with Matt Roik throughout his first three NLL seasons, Richards was named the team’s starter after an offseason trade sent Roik to Toronto. Richards has made a name for himself as a big game goaltender and proved that in the 2010 and 2011 postseasons, where he posted a 5-1 record and led the team to the 2010 NLL title.
“Tyler Richards is a true professional,” said Webster. “Some players come to the rink every night ready to play; Tyler shows up ready to win. He’s ready to be ‘the guy’ and he’s proved that. Great goaltenders win championships in this league and Tyler Richards is a great goaltender.”
In front of Richards is a Stealth defense that is looking to improve on a 2011 season in which the team allowed 198 goals, ninth in the NLL. Injuries were a major factor in last season’s struggles in the back end, but a healthy lineup to start the season leaves the Stealth coaching staff optimistic for an improvement on last season’s numbers.
“We’ve got a lot of depth on defense,” said Webster. “Having a healthy Kyle Sorensen is big for us to go along with an all-star cast of Mike Grimes, Eric Martin, Jeff Moleski and the list goes on. Our goal is to keep teams under 10 goals and if we can do that, it gives our offense a chance to win games.”
The offense of which Webster speaks has led the NLL in scoring each of the last two seasons. Led by the All-Pro duo of Lewis Ratcliff and Rhys Duch, the Stealth attack has terrorized opposing defenses with an array of scoring options. Ratcliff and Duch finished 2011 with 92 and 90 points, respectively. Jeff Zywicki, who has scored at least 70 points in four of his six NLL seasons, returns after missing 12 games last season with a knee injury.
With the season starting against a division rival, there’s no room for error at the start of the 2012 season. In addition, the Stealth gets to begin the season in the friendly confines of the Comcast Arena, where the Stealth struggled last year with a 3-5 record at home.
“Our home record last year wasn’t great,” said Webster. “It’s tough to get road wins in this league so we need to take care of business in our rink. We’ll come out and work harder and with more focus in this one.”
The game between the Washington Stealth and Calgary Roughnecks is scheduled to begin at 7:15pm on Saturday at the Comcast Arena at Everett. Tickets start as low as just $7 and are available by calling 877-MY-75-TIX. For more information on the Stealth, visit www.stealthlax.com.