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Buffalo wins Game 2 15-13 to clinch Back-to-Back Titles; Byrne is Finals MVP

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Quarterfinals Primer: Everything You Need to Know

The new unified standings gave us excitement until the end, and beginning this weekend, we get to see how they affect the postseason. Which of the eight playoff-bound teams will make it through a brutal, single-game elimination scenario? We break down each teams’ chances below, along with how you can watch every game.

 

Toronto Rock (1) vs. Rochester Knighthawks (4)

Saturday, April 27, 2024  4:30 p.m. EST  FirstOntario Centre, Hamilton
TSN, TSN+ and ESPN+

History:

  • Toronto’s last championship was in 2011, when it beat the Washington Stealth.
  • The former Knighthawks won the championship five times, and would love to bring their new iteration a banner for the rafters at Blue Cross Arena.
  • The last time the Rock met the former Knighthawks in the playoffs was in 2015 in the East Conference Final, and they beat them two games to one in the best of three series that featured the 10-minute mini-game after game two. The Rock took that mini-game 8-2.

The Setup: This contest looks like David vs. Goliath on paper, with Goliath (the Rock) holding the clear advantage by virtue of their 15-3 season while Rochester snuck into the playoffs in their very last chance. But the always crafty David (in this case, that’s Connor Fields) might just have the power to stop the runaway train that is the Rock. Fields was the catalyst that got the Knighthawks into the playoffs and there’s no reason for him to slow down his pace now.

The Offense: If it came down to offense only, Rochester wins this. Connor Fields (120 points), Ryan Smith (99 points) and Ryan Lanchbury (86 points) beat the Rock’s top three of Mark Matthews (98 points), Tom Schreiber (76 points) and Corey Small (74 points). That said, the Rock can seemingly score at will, and when you factor in Challen Rogers’ ability to play anywhere on the floor, the Rock will be coming from all angles.

The Defense: Defense is where the Rock really shine, backstopped by Nick Rose (more on him below). They allowed the fewest goals against in the entire league at 169, while Rochester tied for third worst at 226. The Rock’s defense is perhaps the most cohesive unit we’ve seen in the NLL in years, and these playoffs will be their chance to prove the old adage, “defense wins championships,” true. Don’t count out the Rock’s transition game either – Justin Martin and Mitch de Snoo love to run the floor and both have deadly accuracy. Matt Gilray and Mitch Ogilvie will look to run for the Knighthawks too, whenever they get the chance.

The Goaltending: Nick Rose vs. Rylan Hartley is going to be an epic matchup. Rose has been the backbone of the Rock for years and is having an MVP-caliber season. He played all but four minutes of this season and boasts a 9.18 GAA and a .810 save percentage. Hartley was limited to seven games after suffering a concussion early in the season, but he made his presence felt this past weekend in a return to form. Should he falter, Riley Hutchcraft got the Knighthawks through the bulk of the season very well and would be happy to face his former mentor Rose in goal.

The Intangibles: Most of the Knighthawks won’t have to travel too far; there are two and a half hours between Rochester and Hamilton, and many of the players will be coming from Southern Ontario anyway, so travel fatigue won’t be an issue in this game.

And Finally: Toronto handily beat Rochester 13-6 on April 13 at FirstOntario Centre in the clubs’ only matchup this season. It was an embarrassing outing for the Knighthawks, who trailed 10-1 at halftime. But they showed their resilience in the second half, and although the offense couldn’t catch up, they held the Rock scoreless for nearly 25 minutes. 

 

Buffalo Bandits (4) vs. Georgia Swarm (5)

Saturday, April 27  7:00 p.m. EST  KeyBank Center, Buffalo
ESPNU, ESPN+, TSN 

History:

  • Buffalo is the defending champion, and the Bandits have played in the last three finals. Overall, they have five titles.
  • Georgia’s only championship was in 2017, when they beat Saskatchewan.

The Setup: Georgia just missed hosting a playoff game thanks to the Bandits’ inspired four-game win streak to close out the season. Overall, Buffalo ended up with just one more win and one less loss than Georgia, but Buffalo got those wins in a noisy way, while the Swarm kept their head down and worked hard to get this date with the defending champs.

The Offense: Josh Byrne and Dhane Smith vs. Lyle Thompson and company? Sign me up. But while Lyle is the most dynamic player in a generation, his numbers this season nowhere near matched what Byrne and Smith were able to do (135 and 134 points, respectively). Thompson, the Swarm’s leading scorer, finished nearly 50 points behind the pair, tied at 87 with teammate Andrew Kew. He’ll have to find an extra gear in the playoffs to match the offensive output from Smith and Byrne.

The Defense: Both teams have big, solid defenders leading the way, but I give the edge to Georgia here, with names like MacIntosh, Manley, Ranagan, Riggs, Henrick and Wiedemann. Buffalo is led by Priolo, Weiss and Spanger, but they rely quite heavily on Matt Vinc in net, as well as their transition game, led by Ian MacKay. Georgia allowed an average of 10.94 goals against during the regular season, so Buffalo’s league-best 13.17 goals scored per game will be a good test for them. 

The Goaltending: This match features young phenom Brett Dobson vs. wily veteran Matt Vinc. This will be Dobson’s first taste of the NLL playoffs, but he is already widely recognized as a solid option in goal – nerves shouldn’t be a factor for him; he’s too steady. On the other side, many assumed that Vinc would retire after winning the championship last season, but he signed a new two-year contract instead. He’s still hungry, and still one of the fittest athletes in the league. If Vinc is locked in, he’ll be near impossible to beat.

The Intangibles: Banditland. They’re intimidating all season, but are never more rabid than when they can smell a championship for their beloved Bandits.

And Finally: These two teams met only once in the regular season, way back in Week 3, with Georgia getting the 9-8 win. Georgia was on a pretty even keel throughout the season, while the Bandits had ups and downs. 

 

San Diego Seals (2) vs. Panther City Lacrosse Club (7)

Saturday, April 27  10 p.m. EST  Pechanga Arena, San Diego
ESPN+, TSN+

History:

  • Neither team has won a championship.
  • This is the first time they will face each other in the playoffs.

The Setup: San Diego and Panther City played each other twice in the regular season, with the Seals taking both meetings: 10-9 in overtime at Dickie’s Arena and 14-10 at Pechanga Arena. They finished well ahead of PCLC at 13-5 compared to 9-9, but Panther City put together a solid season, once again sneaking into the playoffs as underdogs.

The Offense: If you’re a Seals’ opponent, you should be afraid looking at all the firepower they’ve stacked on their offensive unit. Curtis Dickson. Dane Dobbie. Austin Staats. Wesley Berg. Chris Wardle. That said, the Seals only scored five more goals than PCLC did over the course of the season. Panther City is led by Callum Crawford (94 pts), who is having one of the best seasons of his long career, with a talented complement of young stars like Will Malcom (105 pts) and Jonathan Donville (79 pts).

The Defense: San Diego allowed an average 9.89 goals against (secondly only to Toronto), while PCLC comes in at 11.22 in the middle of the pack. Kyle Rubisch has added a stabilizing element to the Seals’ back end, while Trevor Baptiste has given them the edge in faceoffs. Matt Hossack and Connor Sellars lead a capable PCLC defense, but the Seals get the edge here. 

The Goaltending: There are two young guns in net for this series: San Diego’s Christopher Origlieri, and PCLC’s Nick Damude. Origlieri comes in with the better GAA at 9.79 compared to Damude’s 11.04, but Damude gets the edge with a .800 save percentage, just a tenth better than Origlieri’s .790. Damude’s also more likely to send the ball up the floor with the long transition pass – when he’s not aiming for the goal himself.

The Intangibles: Tracey Kelusky’s Panther City club has a flair for the dramatics, winning three games in overtime this season, plus a fourth game in which Callum Crawford scored the game winner with 40 seconds left. Yes, San Diego beat PCLC in OT, but if it came down to the extra frame again, I’d give the edge to Panther City looking for some revenge – especially if Jonathan Donville gets the ball.

And Finally: San Diego’s Brodie Merrill and Panther City’s Callum Crawford, both 18-year league veterans, have never won a championship. Merrill came out of retirement late this season to have one more crack at it. San Diego wants this championship badly, after stacking their roster yet making early playoff exits every year so far. 

 

Albany FireWolves (3) vs. Halifax Thunderbirds (6)

Sunday, April 28  3 p.m. EST  MVP Arena, Albany
ESPNU, ESPN+, TSN+

History:

  • Neither team has won a championship yet, although the Thunderbirds’ franchise won four as the Rochester Knighthawks and the FireWolves won six as the first iteration of the Philadelphia Wings.

The Setup: Both teams enter the playoffs having won their final regular season game, so they’re coming in on a bit of a high – necessary for both as they each went through rough patches. After starting the season 10-2, the FireWolves trailed off as their relative inexperience began to show down the stretch with a five-game losing streak. Halifax had an up and down season but possess a dynamic offense and transition and the belief that this is their time.

The Offense: The Thunderbirds scored a lot of goals this season – second most in the league at 228, in fact. Albany came in seventh at 206 – not surprising given their youth and reliance on rookies Tye Kurtz and Alex Simmons (both of whom had fantastic seasons), Ethan Walker and Travis Longboat. Halifax’s offense, led by Randy Staats and Cody Jamieson, is older, but dynamic. Every goal they score is like an exclamation point, and when they got going they’re hard to stop.

The Defense: In terms of goals allowed per game, Albany (10.61) and Halifax (11.11) were closely matched. Both teams rely heavily on their goaltenders to make the saves, but Halifax gets the edge in defensive skill and toughness with names like Graeme Hossack, Jake Withers, Tyson Bell and David Brock, who are all experienced players.

The Goaltending: The starting goaltenders for each team (Albany – Doug Jamieson, Halifax – Warren Hill) were the goaltending tandem for the Six Nations Chiefs last summer, where they led the Chiefs to the Mann Cup, the national Sr. A Canadian championship. Both are elite goaltenders in the NLL and seeing these close friends face off will be a treat for lacrosse fans, no matter who you’re cheering for.

The Intangibles: Jake Withers. By himself, Withers has the capability to change the game from the back end, with a face-off win, a goal or a big hit. Once known mostly as a face-off specialist, Withers has elevated his game to become an elite, complete defender. He had a whale of a season with the Thunderbirds, reaching several milestones. He can easily take over the game if the FireWolves let up even a little bit.

And Finally: The FireWolves took the only meeting between these teams 12-10 back in January at MVP Arena. It will help them to have the home crowd behind them because if they had to play at The Nest, the crowd would be intimidating. Halifax’s Ryan Benesch is another veteran – 17 years – that has never won the title, and is having a career season, and his team would like to help him achieve a championship before he retires. 

NLL