Captain Colin Doyle, encouraged by how close the Stealth got to going all the way last season, is eager to get back on the floor.
The Stealth finished first in the NLL West with a 9-7 regular-season record and were edged by Portland in overtime in a division semifinal. The talent is here to take the extra step and go all the way this season.
The 16-game schedule begins at home with a 7:30 p.m. start on Friday, Jan. 9, against bitter division rival Calgary. The Stealth went 2-1 against the Roughnecks (7-9) last season and all three meetings were nailbiters.
``For whatever reason, we have our most exciting games against Calgary,’’ says Doyle. ``Whenever you’re competing within your own division, it’s intense.’’
Doyle kept in shape last summer by playing in Canada’s amateur league for the Brampton Excelsiors in the Toronto region. They won the Canadian championship and the team was coached by Troy Cordingley, who coaches the NLL’s Roughnecks.
``I’m not too sure what to expect from them this winter but having played for Troy in the summer I know they’ll be tough,’’ says Doyle. ``From an offensive standpoint, they’ve got as many weapons as any team in the league.
``We’ll have to keep some of their big guns at bay. I’m looking forward to it already.’’
Having traded goaltender Anthony Cosmo during the offseason, the Stealth will rely heavily on newcomer Matt Roik. With talented youngsters Aaron Bold and Tyler Richards in the wings, GM Johnny Mouradian has ensured future stability at the all-important position.
``Between Matt, Aaron and Tyler we have more than capable goaltending,’’ says Doyle. ``I don’t think goaltending will be an issue for us this season.’’
Doyle makes his first trip to St. Paul, Minn., with the Stealth for a Jan. 10 test against the speedy Minnesota Swarm, who won 14-12 in San Jose last season on their way to qualifying for the playoffs for the first time.
``That’s a team that had a lot of success last year with a standout offence,’’ says Doyle. ``They spread the ball around. They came into our building and beat us. We owe them.’’
The third Stealth game is against Rochester, which is a team San Jose did not play last season, and it offers California lacrosse fans the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see NLL Hall of Famer Gary Gait.
Gait was lured out of a three-year retirement by the 2007 league-champion Knighthawks after they learned they’d be without John Grant, the ’07 scoring champion and MVP, who is recuperating from knee surgery. The ’Hawks went 8-8 last season.
``That’ll bring some excitement to San Jose, having one of the legends come back,’’ Doyle says of Gait’s return. ‘‘I think Rochester is going to be one of the top teams in the league.
``They’ve got an abundance of offence with the addition of Gait and the acquisition from Toronto of Aaron Wilson, their defence has improved, and they always get great goaltending from Pat O’Toole. I don’t see any weaknesses in that team. I’m excited about the prospect of seeing how our team stacks up against them. This is one matchup I’m looking foward to and I hope the fans in San Jose are, too.’’
The second Stealth road game is in Calgary on Jan. 24.
``It’s one of the best road arenas to play in,’’ Doyle says of the Saddledome. ‘‘They’ve always got a good crowd that’s always into it. Calgarians expect their team to win all the time so it creates a competitive environment. I imagine their fans will be good and ready to let us have it if we don’t play well. There’ll be a lot of pressure on us that night.’’
Next up, at home on Jan. 31, Doyle and Co. face Edmonton. The Rush were a league-worst 4-12 last season _ they split 1-1 with the Stealth _ and they’ll be a tougher opponent this time out.
``Every team in this league is strong and if you go in expecting to win you’re going to get beat,’’ Doyle warns. ``We found that out against them last year.’’
Edmonton GM-coach Bob Hamley has made a ton of changes.
``Whether they’ll be good or not, that remains to be seen, but Hamley will have them prepared,’’ says Doyle. ``We can’t for any reason look past Edmonton. That’ll be a much better team than it was last year.’’
A date Doyle and his teammates look forward to with great anticipation is Feb. 7 when they go to Portland. The Lumberjax (6-10) won the last three meetings including the division semifinal, which was decided on an overtime goal that wouldn’t have been allowed had the video replay system the league will use this season been in place last spring. Replay would have shown a Portland player in the San Jose crease. Regardless, the Stealth know they have to be better against the Jax this season.
``It’s a team that gives us trouble,’’ Doyle admits. ``If we’re looking for motivation, we shouldn’t have to look very far on that night. They’ll look different with the loss of Dan Dawson (to expansion Boston in a player dispersal draft) but they’ve got a great corps of defencemen, great transition and great coaching. Being successful in this league comes down to winning the games in your division so that one will mean a lot after what they did to us last year.’’
The Rush trot into the HP Pavilion again on Feb. 21, and the Stealth reach the halfway point of their schedule with a Feb. 28 game in Boston against Cosmo and the expansion Blazers. The Stealth then play the New York Titans in New Jersey on March 1.
The always-formidable Colorado Mammoth are in San Jose on March 14. The Stealth had a 2-1 edge in their last three meetings with the 2005 NLL champs. Both teams finished 9-7 last season and San Jose’s edge in the season series earned it first place.
``They’ve made changes, too, and there are some question marks on their side,’’ says Doyle. ``Their identity might change a bit but they were strong defensively last year and they’re always tough to beat in Colorado where they fill the Pepsi Center in Denver.
``They’ve got the pieces to be another contender, including great coaching. They’re a dangerous team. They’re always going to contend for the western title. Any time we can steal one in Colorado, it goes a long way towards our goal of winning the western title.’’
The Stealth remain at home to play Minnesota on March 21and Portland on March 28, and they play in Portland on March 29 in what might be San Jose’s most crucial weekend of the season. Winning the home half of that hugely important set with the Jax is a must, says Doyle.
``It’s one of those games where you say, `If we can win this one we can really get rolling.’ Winning games in our division at home is so, so important. We need to win those games.’’
April games - at home against Edmonton on the 10th, at Colorado on the 11th, and at Toronto on the 18th - will determine playoff match-ups.
``You can go from first to fifth in a real hurry with one bad weekend,’’ says Doyle.
The final regular-season tilt takes Doyle back home. For the first time since being traded to San Jose from Toronto on Dec. 27, 2006, he’ll trot into Air Canada Centre to face the team he helped win five NLL championships. Last season, the Rock went 7-9 in the East in missing the playoffs for the first time.
``The season couldn’t close out any better as far as I’m concerned,’’ he says. ``It’ll be an exciting night for all our guys who are from that area.’’
Doyle, Roik, Jeff Zywicki, Kyle Sorensen, Shaydon Santos and Peter Veltman are from Canada’s largest province.
``We’re all looking forward to that one,” says Doyle. ``We’ll showcase the Stealth in front of people who haven’t seen us. A win there could bolster us in the standings and help us be West Division champions.”
Plenty of excitement awaits and Doyle and his teammates are ready to give their best shot towards bringing the Champion’s Cup to California for the first time.