The Fight for Second Place

omorrow night is “Pink in the Rink” at the Comcast Arena, benefiting the Puget Sound Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.  But as fans do their part in the battle against breast cancer, the Washington Stealth continues its battle on the floor for second place in the National Lacrosse League’s West Division.  

The Stealth has already clinched a berth in the 2011 NLL playoffs and currently sits in second place in the West Division with a 7-7 record.  That second place position is far from guaranteed however, with the Minnesota Swarm (6-7) just a half-game behind the Stealth as they enter this weekend’s matchup.

The Swarm has had the Stealth’s number so far this season, winning each of the two meetings between the teams this season.  Those wins were due in large part to the play of the Swarm’s leading scorer Ryan Benesch, who has scored ten of his league-leading 37 goals in two games against the Stealth.  In all, Benesch has 16 points against the Stealth this season, including the game-winning goal in the Swarm’s 11-10 overtime victory over the Stealth on January 29.

Both times the Stealth faced the Swarm happened in January, a month in which the Stealth went just 2-3.  The team appears to be hitting its stride of late however, going 4-2 in its last six games.  The Stealth has played its last three games against East Division opponents, going 2-1 in that span, the lone loss an overtime thriller against the East-leading Toronto Rock.

“I’m really impressed with the toughness and grit we have shown in recent weeks,” said Stealth Head Coach Chris Hall.  “We appear to be getting close to the championship form we saw last season, but we’ve got to continue to improve.  We are playing much better defense than earlier in the season, and that’s a great sign.”

The Stealth defense has held opponents to just over ten goals per game in its last six games, over one goal better than its season average.  When the Stealth holds its opponents to ten goals or less, it is 6-0 this season.  Stealth goaltender Tyler Richards has found his groove, making 40 or more saves in three of his last four games.  He is second in the NLL with a .792 save percentage.  The other half of the Stealth’s spectacular goaltending duo, Matt Roik, made his first start since January last weekend and willed the Stealth to a 10-9 overtime victory over the Buffalo Bandits.  He turned in his best performance of the season with 48 saves.

“We’ve got two top goaltenders,” said Hall.  “Going into the last two games of the regular season and into the playoffs, we’ve got two guys that we can trust and be confident in no matter what the situation.”

The Stealth offense has continued its success throughout the season, currently tied for tops in the NLL averaging 12.6 goals per contest.  Lewis Ratcliff leads the charge as he currently holds the league lead with 77 points and his 33 goals and 44 assists are good for third and fourth in the NLL, respectively.  Rhys Duch ranks in the NLL’s top ten in all three offensive categories: second with 35 goals, fifth with 74 points and tenth with 39 assists.

Ratcliff, Duch and the rest of the Stealth offense will look to continue its scoring prowess against Swarm netminder Nick Patterson. Patterson has struggled lately after an All-Star first half, with a 13.45 goals against average in his last eight appearances.  But in his two games versus the Stealth, Patterson averaged 45 saves and nine goals against in two games.

With the Swarm holding the season tiebreaker over the Stealth, this weekend’s contest is even more important for the Stealth’s hopes of hosting a playoff game in May.  A pair of wins in the two remaining home games for the Stealth would solidify that the 2011 playoffs would start in the same place the 2010 postseason ended: the friendly confines of the Comcast Arena.

“If the question is, ‘can we play against the toughest teams in the toughest rinks and win?’ I think the answer is definitely, ‘yes’,” added Hall.  “But there’s no question we want to be playing in front of our fans in our rink come playoff time.”

The Stealth takes on the Minnesota Swarm Saturday, April 9 at 7:30pm at the Comcast Arena.  It’s “Pink in the Rink” with Stealth players auctioning off game-worn, pink helmets and other memorabilia during the game to benefit the Puget Sound Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.  Tickets are on sale now and available by calling 877-MY-75-TIX or at www.stealthlax.com.

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