Less than a month before the start of the season, the Washington Stealth and Toronto Rock made a four-player, blockbuster trade that reshaped the rosters of both franchises. Thirty-two regular season and four playoff games later, the two teams will meet in the 2010 National Lacrosse League Champion’s Cup Final on May 15 at the Comcast Arena at Everett.
The aforementioned trade was the deal that sent Colin Doyle, a 12-time All-Pro and 2009 NLL scoring champ, back to Toronto in exchange for Lewis Ratcliff, Joel Dalgarno and Tyler Codron. While many questioned the trade early on, as the teams prepare for this weekend’s match-up for the NLL crown, it appears that the deal worked out for both squads.
“Both teams did their homework in that trade,” said Stealth Head Coach Chris Hall. “A player like Colin (Doyle) was something Toronto was missing. And we got younger and received an established scorer. It was a well-structured trade and it allowed both teams to succeed.”
Early on in the 2010 season, all signs pointed to the Stealth and Rock meeting in the Champion’s Cup Final. Three weeks into their respective 2010 campaigns, neither team had lost a game. Through seven games, the teams were still battling for the league’s best record at 6-1.
But from there, it seemed the teams were traveling in opposite directions. While the Stealth fell to 6-3, the Rock dropped their next five games and fell back to .500. The Stealth rebounded from a three-game losing streak with three straight wins to improve to 9-3 through twelve games. The Stealth remained one of the league’s best teams, while the Rock were no longer a favorite to win the East Division.
The Stealth went 2-2 in their last four games, needing a win in the regular season finale to clinch home-field advantage. The Rock bounced back to win three of their last four games, clinching the number-two seed in the East.
In the divisional semifinal round of the playoffs, the Stealth dismantled the Minnesota Swarm with a 14-10 victory. The Rock, on the other hand, needed a huge comeback to eek out a 13-11 win over Buffalo.
In the divisional finals, it was the Rock that cruised to victory while the Stealth escaped from the jaws of defeat. The Rock handed the East’s top seed Orlando Titans a 15-10 loss that returned the storied franchise to the Champion’s Cup Final for the first time since 2005. That 2005 season marked the fifth title in seven years for the Rock, all with Doyle, who was traded to the Stealth prior to the next season.
For the Stealth, the West Division Final provided a rollercoaster of emotions. After leading throughout the entire contest, the Stealth gave up two goals in the final minute to the visiting Edmonton Rush, sending the game into overtime. But just eight seconds into the extra frame, the Stealth’s Paul Rabil tallied the game-winner, sending the Stealth to the Champion’s Cup Final. The franchise has appeared in just one final prior to 2010, coming in 2002 when they were the Albany Attack. The Attack lost in the championship game that year, to the Toronto Rock.
Rabil’s overtime goal not only sent the Stealth to the championship game, it also provided another learning experience for the young Stealth squad.
“We got a bit unlucky towards the end of that game,” said Hall. “But we played with a great deal of poise. I was extremely proud we could weather the mayhem that ensued and come out with a win. It’s important to understand that even if you do everything that is expected of you, it can still go wrong. But we still marched through.”
The trials and tribulations of their respective season sets up a championship game between a pair of teams that few thought would be in this position last December. And while their different roads to the Champion’s Cup Final makes this weekend’s game between the Stealth and Rock difficult to predict, both sides know what they need to prepare for.
“It’s a very interesting match-up between two very similar teams,” said Hall. “Both teams have tremendous fire power up front and both teams have strong defense and goaltending when they are playing well.”
Offensively, the Stealth and Rock finished one-two in goals scored in the regular season. The Stealth scored 13.1 goals per game, led by Lewis Ratcliff, who led the league with 46 goals and finished second with 97 points. Rhys Duch and Jeff Zywicki also averaged over five points per game, recording 86 and 71 points, respectively. The pair has continued their great play in the playoffs, with Duch recording 14 points (8g, 6a) and Zywicki having ten points (8g, 2a) in two games.
The Toronto offense is led by none other than Colin Doyle. Doyle’s 84 regular season points (22g, 62a) paced a balanced Rock attack that saw four players finish with over 80 points. The dynamic rookie duo of 2010 Rookie of the Year Stephen Leblanc and fellow All-Rookie team member Garrett Billings combined for 165 points in the regular season. Leblanc carried that momentum into the postseason, where he leads the Rock with 12 points (7g, 5a).
The goaltending match-up will provide yet another storyline in this game. The Stealth, which alternated starts between goaltenders Matt Roik and Tyler Richards in the regular season, has been riding the hot streak of Richards so far this postseason. Richards has allowed just 21 goals in two games, while saving 80% of shots faced. His 49 saves in the West Semifinals marked a career-high for the second-year goaltender.
“You can’t win in this league without solid goaltending,” said Hall. “Sometimes goaltenders can steal you games. We have confidence in both of our goalies, but Tyler has the hot hand right now. A great luxury on our team is that we have two goaltenders we can rely on.”
The goaltender on the other side of the floor has more NLL Championship rings than Richards has playoff victories in his short career. Bob Watson, the 40-year old Rock netminder, has been the starting goaltender for all five of the Rock’s NLL titles. He was named the Champion’s Cup Final Most Valuable Player in 2003.
After an uncharacteristic 2009 season where he allowed 12.79 goals per game, the highest goals against average of his career, Watson had a resurgence during the 2010 regular season, lowering his goals against to 9.31. He continued that into the playoffs, where he has allowed just 19 goals in two games, including a 38-save performance against Orlando last weekend.
Despite a formidable opponent in the Champion’s Cup Final, Hall and the Stealth are sticking with the mantra that has been a constant throughout the postseason: “play our game.”
“There will be penalties (in the championship game). There will be momentum shifts,” he said. “But we need to control the things we can control. We need to be on top of every facet of our game from start to finish.”
The Washington Stealth and the Toronto Rock play for the National Lacrosse League Championship on May 15 at the Comcast Arena at Everett. The opening face-off is scheduled for 7:30pm. The game will also be broadcast live in Canada on TSN and on tape delay for U.S. audiences on Sunday, May 16 at 11am PST.
Tickets for the Champion’s Cup Final start at just $7 and are available at the Comcast Arena Box Office, by calling 877-MY-75-TIX or at www.stealthlax.com.