Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the first National Lacrosse League Championship in the history of the Washington Stealth. It is also the day that the Stealth looks to win its second consecutive title, as the team faces the same opponent it defeated a year ago, the Toronto Rock. The two teams square off again in the 2011 NLL Championship game at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario at 11am PST.
“I don’t think [the Rock] thought we were the better team last year,” said Stealth forward Lewis Ratcliff, who was named the Championship Game’s MVP after scoring five goals in the Stealth’s 15-11 win over the Rock a season ago. “There were some struggles this season, but there was never any doubt in our locker room that we had what it takes to win [the NLL Championship] again. We want to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke.”
The Stealth finished the regular season 8-8 and third place in the Western Division. It was a different path to the Championship game than the route the team took last season, when the Stealth finished the regular season as the NLL’s top overall seed at 11-5. But for Stealth Head Coach Chris Hall, it doesn’t matter how his team got here; what matters is that they’re here.
“How many chances do you get to play in a Championship game?” Asked Hall, who seeks his third NLL Championship in eight years as a head coach. “Teams are too good at this level to just expect to make it that far every year. You always want to seize the opportunity.”
The Stealth has made the most of their opportunities in the playoffs, picking the right time of the year to be playing its best lacrosse of the season. And unlike the 2010 season, the Stealth has been doing it on the road. The Stealth looks to become the first team in the 25-year history of the NLL to win three road games en route to the Championship.
The Stealth eliminated the Minnesota Swarm in the Western Division Semifinals, winning 14-8 at the Xcel Energy Center. It followed that performance with a 10-8 victory over this year’s top overall seed, the Calgary Roughnecks, at the Scotiabank Saddledome last weekend. It was the lowest goal total the Stealth had allowed in back-to-back games this season.
“We are healthier than we’ve been all season,” said Hall, whose Stealth defense played most of its season without assistant captain Kyle Sorensen and several games without other key players. “[Stealth goaltender] Tyler Richards and our defense has put together a pair of great games when we needed it most.”
Richards, who missed time himself with an injury in the first three games of the season, leads all playoff goaltenders with a 7.56 goals against average and .848 save percentage. He finished the regular season with an 11.61 goals against average and .781 save percentage.
While Richards and the Stealth defense has stymied the opposition this postseason, the Stealth offense has continued to show the potency it displayed throughout the regular season. The offensive unit was tops in the NLL during the regular season, averaging 12.69 goals per game. Much like they have throughout the year, All-Pro forwards Ratcliff and Rhys Duch have paced the Stealth up front. Ratcliff leads all playoff performers with 13 points (6g, 7a), including a three-goal, four-assist performance in last weekend’s West Final. Duch has 11 points (4g, 7a) in the Stealth’s two postseason contests.
Another difference maker during the Stealth’s playoff run has been Jeff Zywicki, one more major piece to the Stealth puzzle that missed significant time during the regular season due to injury. Zywicki played in just three games during the regular season, but has regained his world class form with ten points (5g, 5a) this postseason.
“Zywicki brings something that helps us every night,” said Hall. “He’s another coach on the floor for us and is a prolific goal scorer. We missed him throughout the course of the regular season and you can see why in our two playoff games.”
The Stealth will need to continue its recent success on both ends of the floor this weekend when it faces a dangerous Toronto Rock squad. The Stealth has a memory fresh in its mind that illustrates how good the Rock can be: Toronto handed the Stealth a 13-12 overtime loss on April 1 at the Air Canada Centre.
“There’s a mutual respect for both clubs,” said Hall. “We’re looking forward to the game and if our meeting earlier this year is any indication, we are in for a battle.”
That overtime victory over the Stealth on April 1 was the Rock’s only win in its last five regular season games, after going 9-2 in the first eleven games. Toronto reverted to its early season form once the playoffs began however, ousting the Rochester Knighthawks 10-8 in the East Semifinals. The Rock followed that with an 11-10 win over the Buffalo Bandits in the East Final last weekend.
The Rock offense finished tied for third in the NLL in goals per game, averaging nearly twelve per contest. Four Toronto players finished the regular season with at least 70 points, led by super sophomores Stephan Leblanc and Garrett Billings. Leblanc, last season’s Rookie of the Year, tallied 76 points (33g, 43a) while Billings added 75 (31g, 44a). The potent Rock offense also boasts on the NLL’s all-time greats and former Stealth Captain Colin Doyle, who tallied 70 points (27g, 43a) during the regular season.
Doyle was traded from the Stealth to Toronto prior to the start of the 2010 season in exchange for a group of players that included Ratcliff. Since the blockbuster trade, the players find themselves facing each other in the NLL Championship Game for the second consecutive season.
On the defensive side of the floor, the Rock finished the regular season with the fourth-ranked defensive unit, allowing just 10.5 goals per game. Goaltender Bob Watson, who has won five NLL titles as the anchor of the Rock defense, has been stellar in the postseason with a 9.50 goals against average and .782 save percentage in two games. Watson made 46 saves in the Rock’s win over Buffalo in the Eastern Final. The 15-year NLL veteran announced earlier in the year that he will be retiring after the 2011 season.
“Every goalie at this point of the season is tough,” said Ratcliff. “Watson provides another challenge for us. As much as I like and respect him, I hope we can send him out on a sour note.”
For the first time since the 1999 and 2000 seasons, two teams will face one another in back-to-back NLL Championship games. The Washington Stealth and the Toronto Rock face each other on Sunday, May 15. The game will be broadcast live from the Air Canada Centre on Versus at 11am PST.