It’s not often that an early-February match has potentially significant implications for the NLL Playoffs, but, the way the Western Conference is shaping up, the Colorado Mammoth’s game on Friday in Denver against the Saskatchewan Rush (the second of three this season) could potentially give the Rush enough of a cushion to ride out the rest of the season atop the West.
When these two teams met not even one month ago, the Rush were able to come into the Pepsi Center and battle to a commanding 17-12 victory over the Mammoth making them the only remaining undefeated team (at the time) in the league -the Mammoth, of course, were also undefeated going into that mid-January game.
Following that loss to the Rush, Mammoth head coach Pat Coyle said of his team’s efforts, “I don’t really like how we played. I don’t think we played as well as we could in pretty much every position. As good of a team as Saskatchewan is, I felt it was more about us beating ourselves than them beating us.”
Before their first meeting, the Mammoth had had two weeks off, disrupting the team’s ability to find consistency and rhythm necessary to play a complete game. This weekend, the teams will head back to the Mammoth’s home floor in Denver for a rematch, both having played last weekend, both now with strikes in the loss column and the Mammoth seeming to have more of their pieces of their puzzle together than the previous meeting between the two.
“We need to improve on consistency for sure,” Coyle said following the Mammoth’s 14-13 win versus the Vancouver Stealth last week. “I don’t know if it’s two bye-weeks in a row, but we came out flat; I’m hoping that’s what it was. It’s nice to get back into the rhythm of almost playing every weekend.”
The Mammoth showed positive signs in the Stealth match, particularly in the second half, that they did not show in the first meeting with the Rush. “I thought our last half was pretty good,” Coyle said. “I know we gave up a couple of ugly goals there, but, you take those away, overall I thought our defense was much better, I thought [Dillon] Ward was much better. That’s the biggest thing I like about our game both offensively and defensively, is that we continue to battle. There were opportunities there where we could have said, ‘this isn’t our week.’ We battled through that and came up with the win.”
Solid second halves and the discipline to stay out of the penalty box have been key reasons for the Mammoth’s 4-1 record. They currently have the best second-half plus/minus in the league at +12 -the Rush stand at +3- and are allowing just eight Penalty in Minutes (PIM) per game for the lowest rate in the NLL -the Rush have the third-lowest PIM (10.17).
“For sure we stress discipline,” Coyle, the defending NLL Defensively Player of the Year said with pride. “I think we have a pretty disciplined team and we try and play hard between the whistle.” Coyle went on to surmise why he thinks his team is playing better than the field in the second half. “I know our guys do a lot of work during the week. I’d like to think it’s a product of us staying the course. So, putting in work in the first quarter and second quarter so it will pay off in the third and fourth quarters and I think we’re seeing that most times.”
The powerplay has also been a bright spot in the last few games for the Mammoth. Over the first two games of the year, Colorado went 0-5 on their man-up chances. Since that second match, the Mammoth have been 13-20 on the powerplay for a 65% success rate.
“I think mostly what it is,” Coyle stated of the impressive powerplay of late. “Is that guys are becoming more familiar with each other. With Ryan Benesch coming in, and Zack [Greer] not being there for training camp, I think we have a lot of webs together now. It seems that the more we are together, the more we gel together. And, I know that [Assistant Coach] Dan Stroup has been doing a really great job with the powerplay as well.”
If the Mammoth can play to these high standards unlike the first game against the Rush, the home side should fair much better in this critical game.
A Mammoth win would push them ahead of the Rush -and they could stay ahead if they won an equal amount of games as the Rush the rest of the year- in the Western Conference and would even up the season series at a game a piece with a deciding game to be played in April.
If the Mammoth were to lose, that would give the Rush the season series and would give them the playoff-seeding tie-break if both teams were to finish with the same record at the end of the season. With just a half a game currently separating these western rivals one-third of the way through the season, a lot will be riding on this match-up.
The Mammoth will need all the help they can get from every member of the active roster this week to keep the game competitive. Zack Greer, who missed the Stealth match for personal reasons, is back on the active roster and should be on the turf on Friday.
As the lone game on Friday night, it is the only game that can’t be missed. To catch the game, head to NLLTV.com for the 9:30 pm EST face-off on February 2nd.