The Denver Outlaws try to stay undefeated in a game against the Chesapeake Bayhawks this week in MLL.
Trying to defend against any part of the Denver Outlaws’ juggernaut this season is like squeezing a balloon. Apply pressure to choke down one area and another part just gets bigger.
Tonight the biggest game of the year so far in Major League Lacrosse pits the league’s most explosive offense (and second-strongest defense) in the Denver Outlaws against its toughest defense (and second-most-potent offense) in the Chesapeake Bayhawks. Without a doubt it’s the toughest test this season for either team.
There’s a lot on the line. With a victory, Chesapeake (4-2) would move into a second-place tie with Hamilton. A Chesapeake loss coupled with a Charlotte home win over struggling Boston would allow the Hounds to slip into a third-place tie with the Bayhawks.
What Chesapeake did last week – a 13-point win – the 6-0 Outlaws have done TWICE in the last three games while leading MLL in nearly every statistic. Although the Bayhawks beat Denver in the 2012 Championship Final, the Outlaws are riding a 12-game regular-season win streak.
“This is the best team we’ve played so far and maybe the best team we’ve played in two years,” Chesapeake head coach Dave Cottle said. “They’re outstanding. But I think that, if we get the ball as many times as they do, we have the personnel that can slow them down.”
Denver has scored 20 or more points in its last three games, and in four of its six games, this season. The Outlaws have forged an impressive 8.33 average victory margin.
Denver boasts five of MLL’s top 17 scorers, and four of the top percentage shooters, as well as reigning Rookie of the Week Eric Law.
The Bayhawks have four of the top 17 scorers and reigning Offensive Player of the Week Drew Westervelt. This was the Bayhawks’ third Offensive Player honor in six games.
While Chesapeake defeated the Outlaws for the Steinfeld Cup, 16-6, last August, the Bayhawks bested Denver in this year’s preseason meeting, 10-9.
These teams have split the regular-season matchups each of the past two years. In both seasons, it was Chesapeake winning the June game in Denver and the Outlaws taking the August contest in Annapolis. Each of the meetings in 2012 were decided by a two-goal margin.
However, don’t overlook the “Cottle Factor” as this coaching wizard is the best in the game at marshalling his resources and finding exploitable flaws in what would appear to be an invincible team.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
“You have to control their midfielders first. We have to keep their big, strong middies dodging down the side then play good off-ball defense,” Denver head coach Jim Stagnitta said.
“Last time we played them, they completely took us apart,” Denver coach Jim Stagnitta said. “We were out-gunned, out-manned and out-played. There were a lot of factors involved there, but they certainly got the best of us. A lot of what we did in the offseason was to compete better with the Bayhawks."
“Faceoffs and shooting percentage,” Cottle said. “If we get the ball half the time, and we shoot 30 percent, I think we can win.”
“We’ve got to get to the middle of the field and shoot coming from behind on Schwartzman,” Cottle said. “We can’t settle for alley shots. If we settle on alley shots, it’ll be a long afternoon. We’ve got to get the ball to the middle of the field. We’ve got to stop their transition. We’ve got to be able to win some matchups with their shorties. And we’ve got to get back on defense so that they don’t get any transition. Make them play six-on-six. We’re much bigger and stronger than them. They’re probably sleeker and faster than us. So we’ve got to make them play in tighter quarters than they’re used to playing.”
“We have a size advantage in the midfield against some of their middies. They have a quickness advantage. So if we get killed on ground balls, that really hurts us. We’ve got to keep the ball in the air, share the ball, and use our size to our advantage. They’re going to try to play faster and quicker than us.”
“We’ve got to hold them under 15 (goals). Thirty (percent shooting) is a good thing for us.”
Faceoffs and possessions will be critical to victory. Big Anthony Kelly has helped the Outlaws to a .580 percentage – MLL’s second- best take at the X – this season. For Chesapeake, Adam Rand’s draw percentage has improved of late and stands at .477 (fourth-best in MLL).
As for faceoffs, Cottle says “We’ve got Plan A and Plan B. Plan A is Adam Rand; Plan B is our poles.”
Cottle has opted to dress six poles (LSMs and close defensemen) for this game, meaning that versatile long-stick midfielder Michael “Tree” Simon returns from his meniscus tear. The 6’5” Tree was very effective taking faceoffs in practice this week.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
* Jesse Schwartzman (#19, G) – “He’s the key,” Cottle said of Schwartzman, “because he ignites that offense.”
In this week’s MLL Coaches Conference Call, Cottle revealed that one of his chief concerns is the “death by a thousand wounds” that Denver’s All-Star goaltender can inflict by how well he clears the ball and the transition opportunities that creates for the Outlaws.
“He gets the ball out and they run,” Cottle added. “They get twos (two-point goals) in transition.”
* Drew Snider and the Outlaw midfield – Snider, currently tied for fourth place among MLL scorers with 24 points and 16 goals, led Denver with five goals in the preseason meeting between these teams back in April.
* Michael Evans (#33, D) – The 6’0”, 220-pound fifth-year pro and All-Star close defenseman from Johns Hopkins will have the formidable task of guarding Denver’s star attacker Brendan Mundorf, who ranks third in MLL in scoring with 25 points including 14 goals.
As the Bayhawks top shutdown defender, it was Evans who last week kept New York rookie star Rob Pannell without a goal for the first time since the latter’s sophomore season at Cornell.
* Drew Westervelt (#14, A) – With Denver’s top shutdown backliner, last year’s Defenseman of the Year Lee Zink, likely matching up on Bayhawk attackman John Grant, Jr. – as he did last season, Chesapeake may need for one of its other potent finishers to step up. Westy is coming off his career-best performance in which he scored eight goals against New York and added an assist.
In addition, Ben Rubeor (sixth in MLL with 22 points including 17 goals) is always a scoring threat, as is Matt Mackrides (11 goals, 15 points) who has piled up three hat tricks this season.
Cottle also cited another key being “our shorties against Drew Snider and Terry Kimener.”
Having picked the Bayhawks against both Boston and Hamilton, I prefer to put the jinx on the Outlaws this time.
The healthy sit-outs for Chesapeake for tonight’s game are most likely: Tim Goettelmann (A), Dom Sebastiani (SSDM), Tyler Fiorito (G), Andrew Sellers (D/LSM), Casey Powell (A), and Alex Smith (FO).