Week 7 was the first weekend of the season in which defense truly ruled the day.
While there were some high-scoring performances and some tremendous individual efforts out the front gate, the theme of the weekend was defense. For the first time this season, we saw a series of teams put together breakout performances out the back door. The significance of those performances can’t be overstated.
We begin this week by looking at the chart below. It places each team that was in action over the weekend by virtue of their single-game offensive and defensive performances from Week 7. The further to the right a logo rests, the better that team’s offense was. The closer to the bottom a logo sits, the better that team’s defense was. The optimal real estate on this chart is in the bottom right corner.
Calgary, Las Vegas, Toronto, San Diego, Albany and Buffalo each held their opponents to Defensive Shooting Percentages under 14%. That’s six teams. Over the season’s first six weeks, we’d only seen the feat accomplished a total of 17 times – fewer than 3 times per week! But whereas we’ve come to expect Toronto and Calgary to play quality defense, two performances jumped out: Las Vegas and Albany.
For both teams, their performances represented a breakout. For the Desert Dogs, their opening four games had been characterized by missed assignments and surrendering high volumes of quality scoring chances. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they lost three of their first four games. Albany, however, navigated a different experience over the season’s first six weeks. While they gave a high shooting percentage, the FireWolves still managed to start the season a perfect 5-0. This past weekend was the first illustration of what Albany is truly capable of accomplishing on a game-by-game basis. For both teams, these performances are significant.
Let’s begin with the Desert Dogs.
If Las Vegas is going to make a push for the playoffs, it is going to have to rely heavily on defense. Whereas the team’s young offensive talent is still just finding its legs in the NLL, the back end of the Desert Dogs’ roster is littered with seasoned vets and established pros. Their goaltender might be young, but guys like Tor Reinholdt and John Wagner are the true anchors of the group.
But until they dominated San Diego on Friday, the Las Vegas defense hadn’t shown what it is capable of doing. In their first four games, the Desert Dogs allowed three of their four opponents to register Offensive Ratings over 118. The league average is 102, so surrendering ratings of 118 or higher on a consistent basis is simply not good. In fact, the Desert Dogs were burned for the season’s highest single-game Offensive Rating when Saskatchewan dropped 17 goals and posted a score of 226.58 on December 15. How did the Desert Dogs go from their debacle against Saskatchewan to holding one of the league’s most talented offenses to just three goals in the first three quarters on Friday? There are a few pieces to that answer.
Firstly, the Desert Dogs received four remarkable individual performances, including one of the single best of the season to this point. The defensive stalwarts most people thought Las Vegas would rely on entering the season came up huge. John Wagner, Connor Kirst, James Barclay and Tor Reinholdt combined to hold the Seals to 4-for-51 (7.8%) shooting. Barclay alone held San Diego forwards to 1-for-18 shooting – arguably the best individual performance of the season to date. Barclay and Wagner both now rank in the top 13 of all defense and transition players in Goals Prevented, making the Desert Dogs one of just three teams with multiple players in the top 15, joining Buffalo and Georgia.
Secondly, the entire defense made life easy on their young goaltender Landon Kells. Las Vegas allowed just five one-on-one chances over the course of the game, four of which were stopped by Kells. Entering the weekend, San Diego had averaged 12 one-on-one attempts per game, converting 16 of them into goals in three games. Las Vegas held them to less than half of their season average. All of this adds up to the Desert Dogs holding San Diego to 4.3% shooting over the first three quarters of game time and 9.1% for the game.
For Albany, their Week 7 effort was paramount in establishing themselves as serious contenders. It’s one thing to win early season games by scoring a lot of goals. It’s another thing entirely to beat one of the league’s most well-rounded teams with suffocating defense.
In the process of holding Georgia to 4-for-43 (9.3%) shooting over the first three quarters, Albany built a lead that they never relinquished. The script was nearly identical to that followed by the Las Vegas/San Diego game the night prior. A team with a struggling defense dominated out the back door for three quarters, doing enough to build a lead that lasted to the final whistle. The parallels were remarkable.
Prior to putting up a Defensive Shooting Percentage of less than 14% against Georgia, the Swarm were second in the NLL in scoring efficiency, which is measured by Goals Over Expectations. Additionally, Albany had only managed a Defensive Shooting Percentage of about 20% over their first five games—one of the three worst marks in the league entering Week 7. Like the Desert Dogs, the FireWolves made massive strides in preventing one-on-one chances. Goaltender Doug Jamieson faced a season-low five one-on-ones, shutting the door on four of them. Georgia wasn’t able to create high-quality scoring chances at the same rate that we’ve come to expect from the Swarm.
Like James Barclay for Las Vegas, Patrick Kaschalk continued his work as an unsung hero of herculean proportions for Albany’s defense. In addition to a perfect performance against the Swarm (0-for-9 shooting), Kaschalk scored twice and elevated his team-best Goals Prevented metric to 6.18, which ranks 11th in the NLL. For the first time this season, Kaschalk’s work led a stifling defense, as opposed to serving as the last line of defense for a struggling unit.
Looking at the matrix above that plots teams by their season scoring and defensive efficiencies, we see that there is still plenty of work to do for Las Vegas and Albany. Both remain in the bottom half of the league in defensive efficiency. But thanks to their breakout performances over the weekend, a new standard of what is possible for each club exists. We’ll just have to wait and see how they build upon Week 7’s success.