Look to the Albany Attack section of the National Lacrosse League media guide, there is no mention of the playoffs. Actually, that's not true, there are the words "did not qualify" written twice, once for each of the team's two seasons in the league.
The Attack, however, have broken through in stunning fashion this season. Not only are they making their first playoff appearance in team history, they have earned the league's No. 1 seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Albany won team playoff game number one last Saturday, a semifinal contest against the Rochester Knighthawks, 14-10. They will host the Toronto Rock Saturday night at 8:15 p.m. in team playoff game number two - this one being for a NLL championship.
The Attack are the NLL's most surprising team in 2002. After going 5-9 last year, finishing in seventh place, Albany has turned things around and posted a 15-2 record. They have won 11 straight games - the longest winning streak in the league - and are the Central Division champions.
"I think we won four one-goal games, where in the past we might not have won those," Attack Head Coach Bob McMahon said. "We have been healthy, and people are playing well, nobody has really been in a slump, a lot of things have gone well."
The Attack silenced their critics with last week's win over Rochester, the team many felt to be the best in the playoffs. Non-believers pointed to Albany's soft schedule, void of two playoff teams: the Rock and Vancouver Ravens, as a reason for their new found success, but the win over the Knighthawks silenced the doubters and gave the team more confidence than ever before.
"I think we have slowly started to earn the respect of our opponents, that's probably more important to the players, that they gain the respect of their peers," McMahon said. "What some of the people on the internet and things like that say, that's not really of concern to us."
The Rock bring the league's best defense into Albany. They are looking for their third title in four years, but will have to win it on the road for the first time. Toronto went 3-5 on the road this season; Albany is 8-1 at home. Saturday's game will be the first playoff meeting between the teams.
"[The Rock] are just a very good and experienced lacrosse team," McMahon, the NLL Coach of the Year, said. "We know that we will have to play almost a perfect game to compete with them on the weekend."
A hot topic of conversation during the week was fan support. Albany had the second lowest average attendance in the NLL during the regular season. The championship game sold out last year in Toronto's Air Canada Centre and set a new all-time attendance mark, prompting many - including Rock President Brad Watters - to push for the game to be moved to Toronto.
McMahon though is loyal to his home fans, and is proud that his club earned the opportunity to play at home throughout the playoffs.
"We get 3,500 loyal fans every week, without fail, our attendance doesn't go up or down," McMahon said. "They travel to Columbus, they travel to New York and follow us around. We have to get [them] to bring two friends with them and were up to 10,000. We are hoping that maybe [the championship game] will be a catalyst to kick start some better numbers in Albany."
Albany has three starters in the upcoming NLL All-star game: goaltender Rob Blasdell, defenseman Cam Woods, and forward Josh Sanderson. Defenseman Jim Moss, forward Gary Rosyski, and McMahon will also represent the Attack in Connecticut.
A more potent offense is the major reason for Albany's improvement this season. The team ranked seventh in goals scored last season, averaging 12.07 per game. But in 2002 the Attack jumped to third, netting 15.63 per outing.
Sanderson has had a breakout year, tallying 103 points during the regular season, placing him fourth in the league. He set a new league record for the most assists in one season with 68 - although the league played a 16-game schedule for the first time.
The net minder Blasdell has been steady as usual in 2002. He finished third in the league in goals against average, allowing 12.01 per game. Blasdell was between the pipes for all but 25:53 of the Attack's season, playing the most minutes of any goalie and posting 13 wins - the most in the league.