Not so breaking news: Every team’s goal coming into a season is to contend for the NLL Cup. But, as is always the case, the cream rises to the top, and, as the year progresses, fewer and fewer teams are in that coveted position to obtain their goal.
However, in the West Division, things appear to be shaping up differently this year. Teams may have only played one-third of their respective seasons so far, but the division-leading Saskatchewan Rush and last-place San Diego Seals are separated by just two games.
If you ask any coach in the league, every game has the potential to be a toss-up. This year in the West Division is a perfect example. The Rush are best in the West, but they’ve split their season-series over two games with the second-place Colorado Mammoth, those Mammoth have also tied in their season-series with the fourth-place Vancouver Warriors.
Three of these divisional match-ups have been one-goal games, and two of those went to overtime. Most of the games have been fairly close. In fact, the average margin of victory is only three goals. Even as the league has grown with expansion, that hasn’t diluted the product on the floor.
According to Roughnecks forward Curtis Dickson, all of the close games in the West (and around the league) are proof that the NLL is a league in which any team can win on any given night.
“It speaks to the parity of the league,” Dickson said.
“No one has pulled away in the West just yet.”
One key factor differentiates the West from the rest: they have one more team than both the North and East Divisions. It may be a simple fact of the game, but the addition of an extra team thanks to the introduction of the Seals last season, brings an extra layer of complexity and competition to the West.
That’s magnified even further now that the playoff format includes two wild card spots. Now, instead of two guaranteed post season positions coming out of every division, all teams are fighting for those final two wild card spots, therefore, finishing third in your division could keep your season alive. Warriors goaltender Eric Penney understands how important the change of the playoff format is in regards to giving a team like his more of a shot at making the post season.
“The West Division is very close, there’s a lot of talented,” Penney said. “We have an extra team in our division, so it makes those [Division] games so much more important. There’s a lot of skilled players in our division, so you’ve got to get those wins whenever you can.”
Mammoth Head Coach Pat Coyle has both played and coached in the West Division. He understands the effort it takes to get through the gauntlet that is the West because he’s played through it for over a decade. He too acknowledged that the league as a whole is highly-competitive, but that the West is a beast within itself.
“It’s a tough division,” Coyle said. “I don’t look at our schedule and think, ‘that’s going to be an easy game, or that’s going to be an easy game.’ Everyone knows that every game is going to be a hard one.”
“If we’re not taking those games seriously, we shouldn’t be doing this job. They are going to decide whether or not we’re in the playoffs.”
It’s true that the Rush have won the last six West Division titles. But it’s interesting to note that the last time they weren’t kings of the division was in 2013. That season, the five teams in the division were separated by two games, the same amount as this year as of this writing.
Teams may be underperforming, and players have been out of the lineup – look no further than the Roughnecks or Seals who are missing key offence parts – in the early parts of the 2020 season, but Western teams have been keeping the standings tight through Week 9.
The next 13 weeks will surely shake up the hierarchy, but if the Western teams keep beating each other – no West Division is undefeated versus their rivals – this could be one of the more exciting playoff races in the division in recent memory.