Washington's Lewis Ratcliff (left) squares off against an Edmonton forward. (Photo: Richard Olson)
EVERETT, Wash. – Opening the NLL season with back-to-back wins, the Washington Stealth bring their 2-0 record into Comcast Arena Sunday afternoon against the defending West Division champion Edmonton Rush. Game time is 2:45 p.m. PT at Everett’s Comcast Arena.
In a match-up that could easily define the Stealth’s early-season success, Washington will look to its “Big Three” in Lewis Ratcliff, Athan Iannucci and Rhys Duch along with the emerging talent of Cliff Smith to outshoot the visiting Edmonton club.
Combined, Ratcliff, Iannucci and Duch have delivered a total of 12 of the Stealth’s 30 goals along with 11 assists for 23 points in wins over defending NLL champion Rochester on opening night and Colorado last weekend in Denver.
But it’s the play of Smith with seven goals and eight assists in in his first two starts that has captured the attention of the league, earning the 6-3, 200 pound Surrey, British Columbia native back-to-back NLL Offensive Player of the Week honors.
So far Head Coach Chris Hall is pleased with the strides that his team has made but knows that there is still work to be done to get this team back to where it the championship form it enjoyed in 2010 and 2011.
“It’s still a work in progress,” said Hall. “We’ve made a lot of changes to our personnel and how we do things but the good news is we’ve had some early success and have a good base to improve on.”
Those changes have helped Smith rise to top of the NLL early in the season, while opening up opportunities for Duch, who is second on the NLL charts in points (10) and goals (6), and other Stealth producers.
Entering Sunday afternoon’s contest, with Smith leading the NLL in two key statistical categories; points (15) and goals (7), while holding down second in assists with eight, the Stealth is clearly on fire and ready to make an impact throughout the 2013 campaign.
“It’s only two games,” said Smith. “We knew from first day of training camp when those young guys were carving us to death that (this team) was a lot different. We’re moving the ball much better than last year. We’re off to a hot start.”
Against rival Edmonton, the Stealth will rely heavily on not only the offensive fireworks that launched 30 goals in their first two games, but a strong transition game and defensive play.
Among those who are expected to keep Edmonton off balance is forward Kyle Buchanan who ranks third on the NLL assist chart with eight and transition man Bob Snider who leads the NLL in loose balls with 30.
If the offensive show isn’t plenty for opponents to consider, it’s the play of Stealth rookie defenders that is giving opponents fits early in the campaign.
Leading the way are Tyler Garrison, Tim Henderson and Justin Pychel who have all played well combining for eight loose balls in the opening games.
But while the offensive is finding the net and the defenders are keeping opponents off balance it’s the play of the Stealth’s goalkeepers that is proving a difference maker early on.
With both number one stopper Tyler Richards standing tall between the pipes on opening night and former NLL All-Star Nick Patterson looking strong in his first start for Washington in last week’s road win over Colorado, the Stealth are well positioned with a one-two punch between the pipes.
“I thought (Patterson) needed some time to get comfortable but he settled in nicely after the first quarter and was huge for us in the third quarter,” said Hall reflecting on Patterson’s first NLL game since January 2012. “He made a couple spectacular saves that looked like slam dunks for the Mammoth that really gave us the momentum we needed.”
On the other side of the floor, the Rush are coming off a tight loss last weekend after falling to the Toronto Rock 10-9 in it’s season opener.
“Their offense is much improved from last season with the additions of Mark Matthews and Curtis Knight, both who scored three goals in their first game,” said Hall.
In addition to these two first round draft picks the Rush are returning three of its top five scorers from last season including the team’s leading goal scorer Zack Greer.
In 2012, Greer appeared in 15 games during the regular season scoring 31 goals and 12 assists for 43 points.
Of those returning to the Rush this season forward Ryan Ward is the team’s leading point getter. Last season in all 16 regular season games he finished with 19 goals and 38 assists for 57 points.
Also returning this season is Rush forward Corey Small who also appeared in every game last season scoring 19 goals and 29 assists for 48 points.
“If you add those two rookies who can pump in six goals to a team that made it to the championship last season it makes them very tough,” said Hall.
Former Stealth goaltender Aaron Bold was given the opportunity to be a legitimate number one stopper for the Rush last season for the first time in his seven-year career and he did not disappoint.
Bold ended the year with a .775 SV percentage and a 10.47 GAA earning his first trip to the NLL All-Star game.
In the Rush’s opener last weekend, Bold played a solid game, stopping 34 of the Rocks 44 shots on goal in a losing effort last Saturday
The Stealth hold a 17-12 all-time series lead over the Rush. But last season in two games the Stealth were held winless with a 16-5 January home loss and a narrow 10-9 defeat in late March at Edmonton’s Rexall Place.
Combined, Edmonton and Washington have represented the west in the Champions Cup for the last three seasons including in 2010 when the Stealth emerged from the West Division finals with a defining overtime win over the Edmonton squad. The win propelled the Stealth into the Champions Cup final and league history with the franchise’s first NLL title.
“In the West every game is a rivalry game,” said Hall. “There are five teams that are equally balanced and well coached and none of them seem to like each other.”
At 2-0, the 2013 Stealth have an opportunity to extend its margin in the west with every other team in the division starting 0-1. A win today would give the Stealth a 3-0 start for only the second time in franchise history, the first being that Champions Cup year in 2010.
“If you can put some distance between yourself and teams in your division, it’s huge,” said Hall.
“With Colorado and Calgary playing head-to-head one of those teams will drop to 0-2, so to beat Edmonton and go to 3-0 would put us in a good spot.”
NLL Week 3
Game: Washington Stealth (2-0) v. Edmonton Rush (0-1)
Date: Sunday, January 20, 2013
Time: 2:45 p.m. PT
Location: Comcast Arena – Everett, Wash.
Webcast: The Lacrosse Network available at www.StealthLAX.com
Sunday’s 2:45 p.m. start at Comcast Arena is just one of two home matinee games on the 2013 Stealth schedule. The other is Sunday, March 3 against Minnesota.
The Stealth’s 2-0 record to start the 2013 NLL season is just the third time the franchise has opened with back-to-back wins. In it’s 2010 NLL Championship year the Stealth opened 6-0 on the way to its first Champions Cup title.
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