The 2013 NLL regular season finale in Week #16 marked a thrilling end to one of the most competitive years in league history. (Photo: Bill Wippert)
The Week #16 finale concluded what was one of the most competitive regular seasons in NLL history. With all four of last Saturday's games having playoff implications, the weekend was expected to be a thriller, and the dramatic finish to the year certainly lived up to the hype.
The defending champion Rochester Knighthawks (8-8) earned the opportunity to repeat by clinching a playoff berth with a 10-9 road victory over the Buffalo Bandits (6-10).
“The season hasn’t gone the way we wanted, but it’s about who peaks at the right time and last year was a great example of that,” Knighthawks forward Joe Walters told the Rochester D&C. “It just shows the character of this team. We had one job tonight, to get a big win in front of a sellout crowd in Buffalo and everyone came together.”
The game was televised live on CBS Sports Network while the raucous crowd of 19,070 fans at First Niagara Center set a new NLL all-time regular season record.
“It was unbelievable,” Bandits forward Shawn Williams told the Buffalo News about the atmosphere. “Words cannot describe how it felt. It was unbelievable coming out of the tunnel. Then, it settled down a bit.”
Once the dust had settled, Buffalo was eliminated from playoff contention for the first time under head coach Darris Kilgour since he took over in 2003.
“If I’m lucky enough to come back next year, I’d love to coach these guys again,” Kilgour said.
With the focus on next year, questions arise about the status of 44-year-old Bandits captain John Tavares, the NLL's all-time leading scorer, who hasn't decided about returning for what would be his 23rd season in the league in 2014.
“I have not made a decision. It’s way too early,” said Tavares in a Buffalo News feature. “I’ve played this year with nagging injuries. It’s kind of frustrating. I hope to play, but age is obviously catching up to me. I’ve been pretty fortunate to play up to this point. Do I want to play? Yes. Can I play? I’m not sure.”
The Calgary Roughnecks (9-7) clinched the West Division regular season title with a riveting 12-11 overtime road win over the Edmonton Rush (9-7) in the "Battle of Alberta" at Rexall Place, ensuring home field advantage for Calgary through the first two playoff rounds. Roughnecks forward Shawn Evans scored the deciding goal over 10 minutes into OT to cap off the fifth-longest game in league history (70:05).
“It’s a big goal,” Evans told the Calgary Sun. “It’s a big goal for our fans. That’s where we want to be. We want to win in front of our fans.”
After recording 10 points (1+9) on the night, Evans ran away with the NLL scoring title with 112 points (32+80) in 2013, tied for the fifth-highest single-season point total and second-most assists (80) in the NLL record books.
“I’ve said from Day 1, he’s been our MVP,” said Roughnecks head coach Curt Malawsky in a Calgary Sun feature. “He’s our catalyst and he’s our emotional leader. He’s our floor general. We run a lot of our offence through Evvy. He’s a competitor and guys follow his lead. He never quits. Despite his size, he’s got a heart as big as Calgary."
With the loss, the Rush missed out on a chance to secure the top overall seed for the postseason and will now begin the playoffs on the road against the Washington Stealth. But they still could get back and play in Edmonton if the cards fall in their favor.
“There’s lots of lacrosse left,” Rush general manager and head coach Derek Keenan told the Edmonton Sun. “There’s lots of opportunity ahead. If we win in Washington and Calgary loses at home, we’re back here. And if that’s the case and we win, then the final could be here.”
Meanwhile, Rush rookie Mark Matthews set the franchise record with 38 goals this season, third-most by an NLL rookie in history behind Paul Gait (47) and Ryan Painter (45), but managed just one goal in the one-goal loss.
"I've never really come out of a game feeling like I am now. [Calgary] did a good job banging me around," said Matthews in an Edmonton Sun feature. "It was a tough night. I had a lot of opportunities that I missed and it wasn't that I wasn't going hard or anything, nothing just was happening for me."
The Colorado Mammoth (7-9) clinched a playoff berth with a 16-14 road win over the Minnesota Swarm (7-9) before a season-high crowd of 12,243 at Xcel Energy Center. With the score tied at 9-9 entering the fourth quarter, desperation set in for Colorado and they took over the game with a 5-1 run.
“You’ve got 15 minutes. You win a quarter and you’re in,” Mammoth forward Sean Pollock told NLL.com. “It was great. Our offense, we’ve been struggling most of the season and we got us that win there.”
With the win, Colorado leapfrogged Minnesota in the West Division standings, meaning the Swarm will cross over to the East to face the top-seeded Toronto Rock in the first round of the playoffs. Minnesota will not be taken lightly, as they're getting elite play out of the likes of transition player Jordan MacIntosh and forward Callum Crawford.
“[Crawford] should be the MVP of the league in my opinion,” said Swarm head coach Joe Sullivan. “There’s a lot of confidence going out the front door on our team and he’s a big reason why that is.”
The Washington Stealth (9-7) clinched the second seed in the West Division and a home playoff game by riding a nine-point effort by Rhys Duch for a 17-13 win over the visiting Philadelphia Wings (7-9) at Comcast Arena.
It's a huge win for this franchise," Stealth defenseman Curtis Hodgson told the Everett Herald. "Not being in the playoffs last year has been a thorn in our side all year and it was a goal when we started the game that it was important for us and this franchise to get a home playoff game and so I think it's a huge positive for us to keep building on as we go into the playoffs."
Duch scored four times in the game to finish the year with a league-leading 45 goals, but he was far more excited about the win.
"Accolades are awesome," he said. "It's real great to be rewarded and recognized for your successes and obviously scoring goals is something that I take pride in. So it's a pretty cool feeling to win that award. But, I score goals to help my team win."