Primarily thought of for its offense—and with good reason—, the Georgia Swarm’s defense has been quietly coalescing together during the season. Under the guidance from its veteran leaders and the coaching of assistant coach Sean Ferris, the Swarm defense has become a stopping force going toe-to-toe with the best in the NLL.
Against the Toronto Rock—the top defensive team in the East Division—in Game 1 of the division finals on Saturday, May 13, Georgia’s defense outplayed the Rock. Down 3-0 for most of the first half, the defense kept Toronto’s transition offense from running away with the game so the Swarm offense could catch up and surpass Toronto on way to an 11-8 victory.
While the offense struggled to gain traction early in the game, the defense shone from a myriad of players. Joel White had 14LB+1CTO, team captain Jordan MacIntosh finished with 5LB+1CTO, Bryan Cole ended with 6LB+1CTO, and Chad Tutton had 3LB+1CTO.
Offensive players got in on the defensive clinic, as Miles Thompson went 5LB+1CTO and MVP candidate Lyle Thompson ended the night with 6LB+3CTO. Jordan Hall scooped up four loose balls, and Randy Staats got three for himself.
More proof of the Swarm’s defensive prowess was how it held Toronto to only 47 shots on goal, eight of which found the net. These are both below average for the Rock, who averaged 56.22 SF/GAME and 12.17 GF/GAME during the regular season.
This ability to hold Toronto down was due to the pressure Georgia’s defensive end brought for the entire 60 minutes on Saturday night. Assistant captain Jason Noble, offseason addition John Ranagan, Ethan O’Connor, Connor Sellars, Alex Crepinsek, and Mitch Belisle all recorded loose balls of their own while constantly pushing Toronto’s attack away from the goal and rarely giving any open lanes up.
Even when Toronto was able to find an opening, it was more often than not shut down by the stalwart Mike Poulin. Georgia’s big offseason signing shone on Saturday night, making 39 saves to finish with an 8 GAA and an .830 SV%.
“Our defense played well,” White said after Saturday’s victory, “and obviously Poulie backed us throughout the whole game and especially so in the second half. When we’re in those types of situations, we hope that our defense can do what our offense has done for us all season, and that’s bail us out…(T)hat’s kind of what we want to do, is just help each other on both sides of the ball. Poulie’s done that for us all season. We’re lucky to have him.”
While Saturday’s game came as a surprise to many people expecting to see the best offense in the NLL go off, the defense’s performance has been snowballing all season to this level.
During the regular season, Georgia sat squarely in the middle of the nine NLL teams in goals against with 213, one behind the two-time defending champion Saskatchewan Rush and its 212. The Colorado Mammoth, Toronto Rock, and Rochester Knighthawks round out the top five defenses in the NLL.
Georgia’s defense did not start off this strong. In the first nine games of the regular season, Georgia averaged 12.56 GA/GAME. This number was overshadowed by the team’s impressive 14.44 GF/GAME.
In the second half of the season, Georgia’s offense kicked it up another level. In the first four games of April, Georgia averaged 19.75 GF/GAME. In the final nine games of the season, the offense evened out at 15.11 GF/GAME.
This number overshadowed the defense’s work. The Swarm defense saw its GA/GAME in the last nine games improve from 12.56 to 11.11 GA/GAME. The only team with less GA/GAME in the second half was Rochester with 10.89 GA/GAME. Georgia finished the season with a GA/GAME of 11.83, five hundredths of a percentage point behind Saskatchewan.
Only two teams collected more loose balls than Georgia’s 1318: the New England Black Wolves with 1320 and the Toronto Rock with 1425.
Poulin has been steady between the pipes all season, finishing with an 11.77 GAA and a .781 SV%. His signing has paid dividends in the tangibles and intangibles as his leadership has helped the Swarm defense quietly become one of the best in the sport.
“Poulin’s been unbelievable in the locker room and as a teammate,” assistant captain Shayne Jackson said. “He’s been unbelievable as a leader. He’s not afraid to pipe up when the time is needed, and when he does, everyone usually drops what they’re doing and pays attention to him cause he’s been around and he knows what it’s going to take. We can’t say enough about him because he’s been absolutely huge for the team this year.”
Brodie MacDonald has excelled as backup, finishing with an 11.70 GAA and a .767 SV% in 153:52 min. of playing time. MacDonald turned in two particularly exceptional games, one against New England that allowed Georgia to come back from behind and win 17-15 and the final game of the regular season where he held Rochester to only eight goals on the way to a loss.
“We want to continue to play good, aggressive defense and push the pace, push the ball as much as we can,” head coach Ed Comeau said.
With want becoming reality, Georgia is now a threat on both ends of the floor, its two strengths helping it make a run for the franchise’s first-ever Champion’s Cup appearance.