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Eyes on the prize: Mammoth visit Swarm looking for playoff spot

04/14/2014, 3:00pm EDT
By Mammoth beat writer Nick Salen & Swarm beat writer Maria Jollie for NLL.com

Magic number down to one for Colorado to clinch, Minnesota playing for pride

Colorado Mammoth (6-10) visit the Minnesota Swarm (4-12) at Xcel Energy Center on Saturday at 8pm ET. (Photo: Jack Dempsey)

The Minnesota Swarm (4-12) will be playing for pride when they host the Colorado Mammoth (6-10), who can clinch a postseason spot with a win, at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. Watch the game live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.

A few weeks ago, the words “playoffs” and “Mammoth” were hardly synonymous with each other. With one win before a three-game losing streak with a new coaching regime, the team’s fortunes suddenly brightened last week.

After what was the climax of a rollercoaster season last Friday for Colorado, their perseverance could pay off this weekend. With two games remaining on their 2014 regular season schedule, the Mammoth can clinch the third and final playoff spot in the West Division with a win or Vancouver loss.

That scenario was highly contributed to Colorado’s 10-8 win over the previously undefeated Edmonton Rush in Week 16. Interim coach Dan Stroup praised his team earlier this week about a critical win at a vital time late in the season.

“It was a great win, the guys deserved it,” he said. “They’ve been working hard…it was a good time to put it together. We were close the week before, but I can honestly say they put 60 minutes together and they got rewarded for it.”

Offensively, the team has stayed consistent the past few games, with several tallies by Athan Iannucci, John Grant Jr. and Adam Jones. But one name that has been relatively silent on the scoreboard is Drew Westervelt, who has registered only two goals in the last two games. Casey Powell meanwhile has been missing from the lineup recently and his status for this weekend is unknown.

Both Westervelt and Powell were key players in Colorado’s last matchup with the Swarm, recording five (2+3) and nine (3+6) points respectfully.

Defensively Dillon Ward has lived up to being a high draft choice. The third overall pick in the 2013 Entry Draft has been the backbone to all of Colorado’s close games recently, and has a .783 save percentage in the last three games, stopping 123 of 157 shots. Stroup is one of many from the Mammoth that give credit to where they are because of their rookie netminder.

“I shouldn’t say ‘surprised’, but were happy with his timing of finding his game right near the end of the season where we need it…the defense in front of him has picked up also.”

The Swarm have high hopes of making up for a disappointing season with a strong finish at home - something that could prevent the Mammoth from clinching a playoff spot this weekend.

“You can call it a spoiler, you can call it whatever but really it’s just for our own pride,” said Swarm head coach Joe Sullivan. “We’ve worked very, very hard and our record is not indicative of that, I think our play as of late definitely is.”

Last week, the Swarm knocked out a satisfying win against the Buffalo Bandits - one of only two teams they have been able to beat in their four wins this season. The win was a long time coming for the Minnesota team, who was anticipating a quicker mesh of their young players.

“I believe that our young players have gotten a lot better and we’ve definitely surrounded them with a group veterans,” said Sullivan. “It was just a matter of timing. All we could do is take care of ourselves and we didn’t do it soon enough in the season to be able to equate to a playoff berth. So definitely frustrated and disappointed there. But I would say that we’re still headed on the right path, it’s just not as soon as we wanted it to be.”

The last time Minnesota faced Colorado was a well-balanced display of lacrosse from both teams. Each of the first three quarters ended in a tie but the Mammoth prevailed by pulling out two extra goals in the fourth to win 14-12. A lack of focus throughout all four quarters has been a major factor for the Swarm’s struggles earlier in the season, but is something they hope to leave behind.

“That’s been the issue that we’ve been faced with - not being able to stay in the game,” said Sullivan. “We’re starting to play with confidence. Like any team with confidence, you’re always dangerous so that’s what we can dwell on going into this weekend - what we’re doing now and where we’re getting to, not where we’ve been. I think Colorado’s a great team and they deserve to get to the playoffs, but hopefully we can give them a good run for their money this year.”

The Swarm team that came out to play last weekend is absolutely able to challenge the Mammoth and is in a position to pose a threat for the Colorado clinch. Minnesota stands ready to prove their worth and exhibit the type of play they would have liked to be able to show in a playoff game.

“The team started to come together…four or five games ago,” said Sullivan. “We’ve had a lot of overtime losses, some real tight games and challenged and pushed some real good teams in this league that are all going to the playoffs.”

“I don’t think we’ve played to our full potential,” said Swarm transition player Kiel Matisz. “If we play our best lacrosse, hopefully we’ll end up with a good result at the end of the game on Saturday night.”

Minnesota’s recent surge in play has been augmented by two-time defending NLL Rookie of the Month forward Logan Schuss. The Ohio State product is leading his team in goals this season with 30, four of which he scored in the last game.

“Logan came into the start of the year eyes wide open and he knew that there was a lot on him to help us offensively,” said Sullivan. “He worked very, very hard to be that guy that could do all that, it’s just taken him some time. It’s taken his teammates some time as well, probably as much time, to work together and really start to figure each other out.”

“But at the end of the day, our first round, first overall pick Logan Schuss has played just like that. He’s deserved of all the awards and accolades he’s got so far this year and I’d say that he’s leading us on the left side going into our next games and into the following seasons to come.”

As they contend for their own dignity with the last two games of the season at home, the Swarm also vie for all their loyal fans - an optimistic sea of people who continue to show up and make sure “The Hive” is rumbling until the very end.

“We want to give our fans a good close to the season,” said Matisz. “Especially with the hardships that we’ve had this year. Things obviously haven’t played out as well as we wished, but there’s no better feeling than playing at home and closing the season at home - the fans will still support us here.”

“It’s something to prove, not only to the league and the teams that are going to the playoffs, but just to ourselves,” said Sullivan. “Whether it be Colorado or another team that’s not in the playoffs, it really wouldn’t have mattered. We’re gonna prepare as strong and as hard as we have all year to show the character that we have and that we’ve built.

“There is some good and some light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s a pretty big light."

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