Athan Iannucci scored four goals to help the Washington Stealth (6-4) get some breathing room atop the West Division with an 11-8 home win over the Minnesota Swarm (3-6) at Comcast Arena on Sunday.
“To be alone in first after 10 games in the West is pretty gratifying and I think we earned that tonight," said Stealth head coach Chris Hall. “We played very well right through. Even when Minnesota came at us, we held up pretty well. [Tyler Richards] was big and we got a couple of big goals from [Brett] Bucktooth late.”
Minnesota rookie Kiel Matisz opened the scoring 4:45 into the game but it was the last time that the Swarm would lead as Washington scored five unanswered goals, including a natural hat trick by Iannucci in the first 3:20 of the second quarter, to go up 5-1 to help the Stealth go into halftime with a 7-3 lead.
“That’s two games in a row we’ve come out with a flat start. We’ve yet to really come out with the energy that it takes to start with a lead,” said Swarm head coach Joe Sullivan. “The offense has to start getting into a groove. The defense has got to shut them down if our offense can’t find the back of the net early on. It starts to put a lot of pressure on our defense.”
The teams traded goals to start the second half before Iannucci scored his fourth of the game with 43 seconds left in the third quarter for a 9-6 lead.
Washington forward Brett Bucktooth scored just 30 seconds into the fourth quarter. Three minutes later, the Swarm scored twice in 14 seconds to cut the deficit to 10-8. But Bucktooth regained the three-goal lead by getting the hat trick with 4:44 left and Washington held on for the win.
Stealth goaltender Tyler Richards continued his strong play this season by making 43 saves on 51 shots for an .843 save percentage.
“It’s a testament to our defensive changes this year. We switched our system and we’ve really shined in it,” Richards said. “We’re allowing a lot of outside shots, which are easy for me. Tonight, I felt like when we had a few breakdowns, I was able to bail the guys out and make a good stop for them."
The Swarm's Tyler Carlson, who got the starting nod over Evan Kirk, also played well with 36 stops on 47 shots in the losing effort.
Bucktooth (3+3), Rhys Duch (1+5) and Iannucci (4+1) each recorded a game-high six points in the win. Callum Crawford (2+1) was the only Swarm player to score more than once and finished with a team-high three points while Jordan MacIntosh recovered a game-high 11 loose balls.
The Stealth earned their third win over their last four games and improved to 4-1 at home this season while the Swarm fell to 1-3 in their last four contests and 1-4 on the road in 2013. Washington now leads the Calgary Roughnecks (5-5) by one full game in the standings.
“Game-by-game, the offense is showing better signs of chemistry," Hall said. "Iannucci had a big game for us tonight and that’s what he's here to do. Tonight, when Lewis [Ratcliff] and Duch are not [having] big games, having a guy pick up four goals is huge for us.”
This was the first game for Minnesota after learning that their captain Andrew Suitor would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury suffered in the first leg of their home-and-home split against the Edmonton Rush last weekend.
Duch registered his 400th career point in just his fifth season in the NLL. Last weekend, Duch passed former teammate Jeff Zywicki for second-most points in franchise history.
“It’s not a huge milestone obviously," Duch said. "But I'd like to think that it's 400 [points] of many more to come."
Since the Swarm defeated the Stealth at home by a score of 15-14 in late January, the teams will meet once more in Minnesota on Saturday, March 16 to break the season-series tie.