The Washington Stealth is just three wins away from repeating as National Lacrosse League Champions. The three-round, single-elimination NLL Playoffs get underway this Saturday, with the Stealth traveling to St. Paul, Minn., to take on the Minnesota Swarm in the West Division Semifinals.
This weekend’s matchup marks the second straight season the Stealth (8-8) and Swarm (8-8) face each other in the opening round of the playoffs. Last year the Stealth, the NLL’s top overall seed last season, hosted the Swarm and posted a 14-10 victory en route to the NLL title. In the 2011 playoffs, the Stealth is the number-three seed in the West, while the Swarm comes in as the second seed.
The two teams are very familiar with one another, having played three times during the regular season. The Swarm won two of those meetings, both in January, giving them the series tiebreaker and the right to host the Stealth in the opening round. The Stealth won the most recent meeting, a 16-15 overtime victory at the Comcast Arena on April 9. It was the second overtime game in the season series.
The Stealth offense was stellar throughout the regular season, posting a league-leading 12.69 goals per game. All-Star forwards Lewis Ratcliff and Rhys Duch led the charge, finishing second and third, respectively, on the NLL scoring chart. Ratcliff tallied 92 points (41g, 51a) while Duch added 90 points (42g, 48a), including a league-high five game-winning goals. It was Duch that tallied the overtime winner against the Swarm on April 9.
The Stealth also boasts the league’s top-ranked power play unit, converting on over 49% of its extra-man opportunities. That unit could be even stronger going into the playoffs with Jeff Zywicki, one of the NLL’s premiere goal scorers, expected to be available this weekend after spending the majority of the regular season on the shelf with a lower body injury.
On the defensive end of the floor, the Stealth finished the regular season ninth in the NLL allowing 12.37 goals per game. Despite the high number of goals scored by the opposition during the regular season, Stealth Head Coach Chris Hall is sure the goaltending tandem of Tyler Richards and Matt Roik will step up in the postseason.
“We have tons of confidence in both our goaltenders,” said Hall. “They are both top goaltenders in this league and I expect now that it’s playoff time both will rise to the occasion when called upon.”
Richards played the bulk of the minutes in goal during the regular season, posting a 5-6 record, 11.61 goals against average and a .781 save percentage, good for fifth in the NLL. Roik went 3-2 on the year with a 12.33 goals against average and .753 save percentage.
The Stealth defense will have its hands full with a potent Swarm offense. The most lethal weapon in its arsenal is Ryan Benesch, the 2011 NLL scoring champ with 95 points and a league-high 46 goals. Benesch has been particularly dangerous versus the Stealth, posting 13 goals and 10 assists in three games. In the first meeting between the teams on January 14, Benesch scored seven goals and added four assists.
“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t prepare us to stop a guy like that,” said Hall about Benesch. “He’s a great player and while you can never completely stop a great player, you need to minimize his impact.”
While Benesch is a focal point for Coach Hall and his staff, the Swarm has multiple options on offense. Seven other players posted 20 or more points, including a pair with over 50 points during the regular season. Callum Crawford finished with 70 points (27g, 43a) and Aaron Wilson tallied 57 (23g, 34a). The duo combined for 15 goals against the Stealth this season.
“Their offense is a lot deeper than it’s ever been,” said Hall. “We match up very well as we are very similar teams. It wouldn’t be a surprise if we went to overtime again.”
The West Division Semifinal matchup between the Washington Stealth and Minnesota Swarm is scheduled to begin on Saturday, April 30 at 5:30pm PST at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. The game can be seen live on the NLL Network at NLL.com.