For weeks, the NLL East Division has been a tumultuous train wreck reminding experts and fans that nothing is certain. Yet, it all comes to a climactic head in Week 21 of the 2017-18 NLL season as all five teams – each with a chance to clinch one of three coveted postseason berths – leave everything they’ve got on the floor in the hopes of continuing to play into May.
Out of all five teams, only the defending champion Georgia Swarm (9-7) closes the season with a doubleheader. The Swarm is entirely focused for now on the visiting Vancouver Stealth (2-15), playing each other for the second time this season on Saturday, April 28. Faceoff is set for 7:05 p.m. ET at Infinite Energy Arena.
The next morning, Georgia takes an early Sunday flight north for its third and final bout against the New England Black Wolves (9-8). Faceoff at Mohegan Sun Arena is set for 5:00 p.m. ET and will be the NLL Twitter Game of the Week.
“Every team in the league wants to do the best they can, but 11-7 for us starts with 10-7,” Swarm Head Coach Ed Comeau said. “We need to be focused on what we do Saturday night against Vancouver, and then we’ll worry about what our record will be by Sunday at 7 o’clock. We’ll worry about it at that time.”
Georgia’s path to the top seed in the East Division is simple: win two games and sit alone in first place. Looking to throw a wrench into that plan is a Vancouver team looking to end its dismal season on a positive note.
“Our message is we have to stay focused on our task, which is trying to get a win,” Stealth Head Coach and Assistant General Manager Jamie Batley said. “We all know that it’s been a tough season for everyone, but our focus is to get a win this weekend and to play within our systems that the coaches are asking to play within.”
The two teams met back on Jan. 27 in Langley Events Centre, and Georgia won 16-12, handing Vancouver its sixth loss of the season.
Vancouver’s woes continued throughout the following weeks, and the West Division team was officially eliminated from postseason consideration with a loss to the Calgary Roughnecks at the end of March.
Corey Small leads the team with 73 points (26G, 47A), followed by Logan Schuss (26G, 35A) and Rhys Duch (17G, 44A). It has been a revolving door between the pipes for the Stealth. Goaltender Eric Penney has spent the most time in front of the net for Vancouver, and in 613:13 min. of action, the third-year player has a 14.97 GAA and a .744 SV%.
Despite only having two wins to compliment its 15 losses, Comeau refuses to let his opponent’s record blind the Swarm.
“We’re all aware of where Vancouver is, but we also know that they have good lacrosse players down there,” Comeau said. “Although there might not be anything on the line for them in terms of playoffs, every lacrosse player in this league will tell you every time you go out there that they’re going to give their best. We know that they’re going to show up, and this is a way for them to try and end on a high note.”
In hopes of making that final note sour, Georgia will ride the hot hand that is the 2017 NLL MVP Lyle Thompson. His 75 points (40G, 35A) lead the men in blue and yellow, and Lyle’s 18 goals in the past four games have terrorized the four most recent Swarm foes. Shayne Jackson sits behind Lyle in points with 74 (28G, 46A), and Randy Staats – coming off an eight-point game against Saskatchewan – has 61 points (28G, 33A).
“We recognize that [Lyle’s] been on a little bit of a tear lately, but we have a game plan specifically for our team,” Batley said. “We’re aware of their players and some of their tendencies, and we’ll try to counteract what they do well. But it’s lacrosse. There’s going to be goals at both ends. We’re going to focus on what we do and try to do it to the best of our ability.”
Looking to prevent goals against the Swarm end is goaltender Mike Poulin, who has been strong between the pipes for Georgia. He has played in every Swarm game this season and sports an 11.84 GAA and a .772 SV%.
The strong defense in front of Poulin has hit its stride in the second half of the season. The team has not allowed an opposing team to score more than 12 goals in the past seven games and is averaging 10.14 GA/GAME during that span.
The end of the regular season is tantalizingly close for the Swarm and the rest of the NLL. While the East will finally be untangled by Sunday night, Georgia can help extricate itself from the messy standings with a second win against Vancouver before a quick turnaround to face a hungry Black Wolves team and close out the NLL season.
“Everyone’s aware that there’s a lot riding on it, not just for us but for every team in the East,” Comeau said. “It’s truly a playoff atmosphere for the whole division, which is pretty rare to have a final weekend where every team is in consideration, multiple teams can finish first or finish out. It means a lot of focus; it means a lot of intensity.
“It’s going to be a great weekend of lacrosse.”
Fans can catch the game live on NLLTV.com.