Despite the 2019-2020 season entering its fifth week this Christmas season, no NLL team has played more than two games (and two have only played once) and only three of the league’s baker’s dozen teams have amassed multiple victories.
The Georgia Swarm enter the final games of the 2019 calendar year as one of those teams. Their third opponent, the Colorado Mammoth, used an overtime goal just last week against the Calgary Roughnecks denying the defending NLL champions from joining the Swarm, New England Black Wolves, and Halifax Thunderbirds as the only 2-0 teams in the league.
For the Mammoth, the road win was particularly critical for them. They opened the season with a home loss to the Saskatchewan Rush, and with a road tilt at the defending champs looming, followed by this weekend’s trip to the Infinite Energy Center in Duluth to take on a very good Swarm team, an 0-3 start looked extremely possible. It looked even more possible after falling behind 2-0 to start the game, and then 3-1 before the end of the first period.
They of course avoided this with a come-from-behind 8-7 victory over Calgary on the night the Roughnecks raised their third championship banner. And on a weekend with a thin schedule with only two NLL games, it was an event that got the full attention of NLL fans league wide.
Unfortunately for Colorado, it required overtime in their second match for them to reach 16 goals on the year. Only one (New York Riptide, 14) of the 11 teams who have played in two games this year have scored fewer goals on the year. Conversely, the 26 scored by the Swarm in their first two outings is tied for the most in the league with Halifax.
The leading point scorer on the year for Colorado is Jacob Ruset with seven. For insight into how differently the two offenses have performed this year, consider that four Georgia Swarm players have scored at least nine on the year. One contributor to this however has been that last year’s leading scorer for the Mammoth, Eli McLaughlin, missed last week’s game against Calgary after tabulating five assists against Saskatchewan. As of press time, his status for Saturday night’s game was undetermined.
Despite the offensive struggles, the Colorado defense has been able to keep them in both games to open the year. Their 16 goals allowed is the third fewest in the league among teams who have played more than once, trailing only Calgary and Georgia.
Speaking of Georgia and defense, the Swarm have been absolutely ridiculous on the defensive side of the ball thus far this season. Only ten shots have found the back of the net against the Swarm. Of those ten, only eight came against starting goalie Mike Poulin. Poulin’s .911 save percentage does not exactly promise to be the best elixir for an ailing Colorado offense.
But what the Mammoth hold their hat on is defense, and aided by Dillon Ward’s 100 saves, good enough for second in the league, the defense has delivered. Jordan Gilles, the overtime hero against Calgary, in particular has been vital to the defensive efforts with four forced turnovers. They’ll need more of the havoc he creates if they’re going to slow down the Swarm and their plethora of weapons.
The stingy Mammoth defense will obviously be tested by a Swarm offense that has put up 13 goals per game over the season’s first two games. Containing Lyle Thompson and Shayne Jackson will be the first objective of Ward and the Mammoth defense. The two have combined to score 14 of the team’s 26 goals scored. That even without those two the Swarm still have 12 other goals speaks to the depth of scoring options at their disposal, and to the extreme level of difficulty it will be to slow them down.
But the Swarm offense will also be tested by a stiffer defense than anything they’ve faced this year. The Swarm spent their first two match-ups taking on the newest teams in the league in the second year Philadelphia Wings and in this year’s expansion team, the Rochester Knighthawks.
The Swarm know their strength of schedule is about to pick up, as it won’t just be their top flight offense being tested. The defense, which has been stifling, knows that even against a team struggling offensively like Colorado, this is likely to be their biggest test to date as well. In particular, the speed of Colorado promises to provide a new challenge to the Swarm defense.
For Colorado, Saturday night provides an opportunity to steal a second road win against one of the league’s top contenders.
For Georgia, it’s a change to prove their early success isn’t just a product of playing young franchises.
The team who comes away victorious on Family Night at Infinite Energy Arena will likely be determined by whether or not the Mammoth defense can keep the Swarm below 8 goals. Which unit will win? The dynamic Swarm offense, o