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PlayoffsStories/Op-Ed

The Colorado Mammoth’s Journey to the NLL Finals

Heading into the 2021-22 season, there were many tough predictions about where teams would finish based off offseason acquisitions and the time off due to the pandemic. The Mammoth were no exception.

In the shortened 2019-20 season, the Mammoth finished 7-6 and second in the West Division. They finished on a three-game win streak and made a big trade to acquire Tyler Digby from the New York Riptide to bolster their offense towards a championship run. Ryan Lee was enjoying a breakout year with a career high 60 points through 13 games and the backend with Dillon Ward in net seemed to be poised for a deep playoff run, allowing less than 10 goals per game.

Compared to the last full season in 2018-19 where the Mammoth squeezed into the playoffs with a 6-12 record and upset the Rush in the first round, the team was on an upward trajectory.

Looking into the elongated offseason coming into this season, a lot of new faces made appearances in training camp and some longtime Mammoth players were no longer with the team. Jacob Ruest was traded to Albany, Kyle Killen to Vancouver, Jeff Wittig to Rochester, and the biggest being team captain Dan Coates to Georgia. Promising rookie, Will Malcom, was eventually the player lost to Panther City in the expansion draft.

The new faces in included Zed Williams, Connor Robinson, Brett McIntyre, Ron John, Jalen Chaster, among others looking to crack the Mammoth roster or make an immediate impact.

The belief in the locker room was there but with so much change around the league, no one outside that room knew exactly what to expect of this team heading into this season, especially in the new six-team West Conference.

The Roughnecks were still the defending champions, the Rush had owned the West for almost a decade, the Seals added Dane Dobbie and first round draft picks to impact their team, Vancouver made moves to improve their roster and Panther City as an expansion team had unknown expectations. Only three spots were guaranteed to go to the playoffs from the West. While the Mammoth have made the playoffs almost every year, they have never seemed to be the favorite.

Many preseason power rankings had the Mammoth where they have been for years, middle of the pack. Good, but not great.

Game one comes around in December and the Mammoth look dominant, winning 16-11. Game two comes and they lose to the Seals only scoring four goals. The following week they squeak out a win against the expansion Panther City 8-7. It was hard to get a grasp of the identity behind the Mammoth. Were they able to become more of an offensive focused team or would they still be the defensive minded team of years past?

That answer would come in game four of the season. Playing the Warriors, the Mammoth would find themselves down 7-0 after just five minutes of play. They would find themselves down 9-2 at the end of the first quarter.

The Mammoth would chip away at the lead and only down by two at the half and took a single goal lead into the fourth quarter before eventually winning 18-15. The offense picked up the defense and once the offense got going, the defense picked up their game.

The answer for this team? The Mammoth would just find ways to win, especially in clutch moments.

Colorado would be close to the top of the standings at 5-1 a third of the way through the season. After a 1-3 stretch, it was a similar game against the Warriors that got the team back on track as well as two big trades at the deadline.

The Mammoth were one of the few busy teams at the trade deadline and bolstered their roster to try and fill gaps on their roster. The big trade was sending Tyler Digby and Ron John to New York in exchange for former number one overall pick and Rookie of the Year, Tyson Gibson to join the righties on offense. On the backend, the Mammoth acquired veteran defenseman, Anthony Joaquim from the Wings in exchange for rookie Sam LeClair who showed promise in the few games he suited up for the Mammoth.

On March 18, finding themselves down seven, again, but this time late in the third quarter, the Mammoth would come back to win in overtime by a score of 17-16 against the Warriors. While never intending to get off to slow starts, the Mammoth were the only team in the NLL to have a non-losing record when trailing at the half (5-5 record). They keep games tight and jump on you in the latter stages of the game and we have seen that in the postseason as well.

Dillon Ward remained the kingpin on the backend in net and would keep the team in almost every game. He finished second in the league with a .804 save percentage, made even more impressive by the fact the Mammoth defense gave up the third most shots per game.

If the NLL had a breakout player award, the Mammoth may have been able to have a few nominees. If it wasn’t for Dhane Smith’s record season, Ryan Lee would have led the league in points (119) and would have set the NLL record for assists in a season at 85, probably as the story of the season.

On the other side of the offense, Connor Robinson made himself a fan favorite in the Loud House, scoring 42 goals this season including an unforgettable sock trick in Colorado with a bloodied nose during the post-game interview. He had previously scored five goals in 11 career games with the Rush.

The three headed beast of Lee, Robinson, and Eli McLaughlin would combine for 114 goals and 159 assists for 273 points, the most goals scored of any trio in the NLL.

On the other end of the floor, Warren Jeffrey continues to develop into a dominant defender and usually going under the radar on most stat sheets. Erik Turner who was previously on the practice roster, finally got a chance to play and proved his worth on the floor. Jalen Chaster would also be a key cog in moving the ball in transition with his speed. Tim Edwards would go out with an injury midway through the season and his importance to the team was immediately felt when we returned.

After dropping their final two games of the regular season, the Mammoth would finish with a respectable 10-8 record but with the tiebreakers against the Roughnecks and Seals, would be third place in the West.

In the Quarterfinals, the Mammoth would get the 16-year monkey off their back and defeat the Roughnecks by a score of 16-12, only their second win against Calgary in the playoffs since 2003 (2-10 record). The only other win came in 2006 when the Mammoth won the championship.

Going into the West Conference Finals against the Seals, a best two out of three series, the Mammoth got off to the series lead with a win in San Diego. Trying to close out the series and prevent having to go back to San Diego for a decisive Game 3, the Seals would come back late in the fourth, force the game into overtime, before Dane Dobbie would eventually win the game.

In Game 3, the Mammoth would face a 9-5 deficit at the half. In each game of the postseason, the Mammoth would find themselves trailing at some point in the third quarter. The Mammoth defense locked in and held the Seals scoreless while scoring three of their own to make it a one goal game going into the fourth.

In the fourth, Joey Cupido would score an amazing, transition, blind, and flying goal to give the Mammoth the lead and they would not turn back, eventually winning 15-13 to make it to the NLL Finals for the first time since 2006. Not to mention, the Mammoth were missing their leading scorer, Ryan Lee, for the whole series against the Seals.

Without Lee, multiple players have stepped up their game to get them to the Finals. Eli McLaughlin has been on a historic pace in the first four games of the postseason, recording 33 points on 17 goals. After averaging about three points per game in the regular season, Zed Williams has 24 points in the first five games (including Game 1 of the NLL Finals). The Mammoth offense has scored more goals per game in the postseason than they did in the regular season.

While only a few players on the roster have championship experience, the bulk of Colorado’s roster is new enough or young enough, not to know the history of the Mammoth and the lack of championships. This new generation is looking to be the core for the Mammoth for years to come and hopefully bring a title (or more) back to the Loud House.

The veterans of this team including Cupido, Ward, McLaughlin, Robert Hope, among others, all know the long journey it has been to get to this moment and they will not take the opportunity lightly.

While down in the NLL Finals one game to none, expect the Mammoth come out and do what they have done all season, get wins while everyone counts them out.

NLL