The 2016 NLL Champion’s Cup Finals are now set as the Buffalo Bandits will take on the Saskatchewan Rush with Game 1 set for Saturday, May 28 in Buffalo live on TSN2 & TSN GO and the ESPN app at 7:30 p.m. ET. Both teams advanced via Division Finals series sweeps as the Bandits downed the Black Wolves while the Rush knocked off the Roughnecks in the Game 2 matchups this past weekend. Check out which players performed the best with a preview of Stephen Stamp’s Three Stars of the Week on IL Indoor below.
“There’s a saying that in big games, your best players have to be your best players,” Stamp writes. “Is that really the case? There are plenty of examples of big-name guys doing the heavy lifting, but there are also plenty of examples of guys considered to be complementary players stepping up into starring roles on the big stage: had you ever heard of Dexter Jackson before he was the Super Bowl MVP in 2003? Me neither.”
Saturday night saw the Buffalo Bandits and Saskatchewan Rush sweep the division finals to set up an intriguing Champion’s Cup matchup starting next Saturday. In the clinching games, we saw big names and role players demanding the spotlight. Both are represented in this week’s National Lacrosse League 3 Stars.
Dhane Smith, Buffalo Bandits
4 goals, 5 assists
We start with the biggest of big names in the NLL this season. Dhane Smith followed up his record-setting, credulity-straining regular season by doing in the playoffs what he’d done for 18 games already: keep scoring despite what anyone tries to do to stop him. The thing about the Great Dhane’s 16 points in two playoff wins over New England is that it generally looked like the Black Wolves did a pretty decent job against him. Smith didn’t have tons of great scoring chances and it was seldom easy for him to create them for himself or others.
One of his goals Friday was a perfect exemplar of the Dhane Defence Conundrum. Dan Ball was on Smith at the top of Buffalo’s offensive formation. Smith jab-stepped hard to his right and Ball went with him, just for a moment. As soon as Smith saw that Ball’s right foot had crossed over his left and he’d started to turn his shoulders to try to get ahead of Smith heading down the alley, Smith stepped back and let a shot fly. Ball recovered quickly and jumped out on Smith, but it was too late.
Now, I am able to tell you exactly what happened and how it created just enough space for Smith to get his shot off because I have watched the play several times and analyzed the exact sequence. Just think about what it’s like to be a defender against Smith, knowing that you have to stay between him and the net. You have to take the step that Ball did. Perhaps if he’d used a slide step, leading with his left foot instead of his right, he could have stopped Smith. Then again, the slide step might left him with his feet spread to far to catch up as Smith accelerated into a bit of open space. There’s simply no way to shut Dhane Smith down right now. Ball didn’t play bad defence; he played slightly imperfect defence, and that was plenty for Smith to take advantage. Just think how fascinating it will be to see what Saskatchewan does to try to contain Smith. It will be a chess match played out at lightning speed.
Jeff Cornwall, Saskatchewan Rush
1 assist, 6 loose balls, 3 caused turnovers
One of the defenders with primary responsibility for covering Smith will be Cornwall. That should be a source of some comfort for Rush fans. Cornwall doesn’t get the nod here because of his numbers, although his three caused turnovers is a solid stat. He is recognized because he played an absolutely sensational defensive game and was a dynamic difference maker for all 60 minutes. It’s no shocker that Cornwall played well—he’s evolved into one of the best defenders in the league, he just doesn’t get lots of attention because the Rush are so stocked with stud defenders. But while Corbeil, Dilks, Rubisch and others all had strong games for Saskatchewan, it was Cornwall who just seemed to be everywhere, making plays one after another. He blocked shots, he created transition chances, he played his usual aggressive, physical defence without taking a penalty. In short, Cornwall was superb.
Kedoh Hill (Buffalo): 4g, 3a. Hill had a strong year in transition for the Bandits, but only once did he score more than two goals in the regular season. He was on fire in the division final, scoring four goals in each game…Aaron Bold (Saskatchewan): 39/48, .813 save percentage. Saskatchewan did thoroughly outplay Calgary, but Bold playing like his old self both helped keep the Roughnecks’ offence at bay and infused his teammates with added confidence. He’s finding his game at the perfect time for the Rush’s repeat hopes…Greg Harnett (Calgary): 1a, 7LB, 2CTO. Take away the handful of goals Saskatchewan scored in transition and their power play marker, and you see that Calgary’s defence did a pretty solid job against the Rush. Harnett was, as usual, front and centre in the unit’s efforts…Chad Culp (Buffalo): 3g, 1a. There’s just something about a Chad Culp goal that gets his teammates fired up, and when he notches a hat trick it leads to a very inspired team…Zack Greer (Saskatchewan): 4g, 2a. Scored three of the Rush’s four goals in a five-minute span of the fourth that settled the outcome…Chris Corbeil (Saskatchewan): 6LB, 6CTO. Six caused turnovers in one game is impressive…Shawn Evans (New England): 2g, 4a. Evans will be disappointed that the Black Wolves fell short, but he led them much farther than anyone expected them to go this year…Mitch de Snoo (Buffalo): 4LB, 5CTO. Forget about calling him a rookie any more. de Snoo is playing beyond his years …Tyler Digby (Calgary): 4g. Helped give the Roughnecks and their fans just a little bit of hope with his late goals… Ryan Benesch & Mark Steenhuis (Buffalo): 3g each, 4 & 2 assists, respectively. Candidates for best performance in a supporting role…Mark Matthews (Saskatchewan): 2g, 5a. What a beauty his pass to set up…
Click here for the Third Star and full list of Honorable Mentions from Stephen Stamp’s Three Stars of NLL Division Finals Game 2 on IL Indoor.