The Minnesota Swarm will begin their quest for the NLL title tonight, at home, against the defending champion Washington Stealth. The two teams have face each other three times this season, with the Swarm taking two of three. With familiarity comes closeness, and this match-up is no different. The last two contests of the year ended up needing extra time to settle.
No one thinks this game will be any different.
Swarm GM Marty O'Neill said that, "I think we're pretty well matched. Minnesota made some great moves to improve their team, I think this is probably the best Minnesota team there's ever been and they're really deep throughout. They improved their offense, and their offense is a lot deeper."
Echoing that sentiment, Swarm co-owner Andy Arlotta said he suspects, "it is going to be even harder fought battle. Our guys have something to settle. They knocked us out first round last year and went on to win the championship." He also noted that the mood on the team is good, saying "The vibe that I'm getting from these guys, I've never seen that kind of gelling going on, as much pride being seen from these guys as I am right now."
This is all good news for Swarm fans as they come into just the second home playoff game in team history. The Swarm brass has mentioned several times that one of their goals was "to bring a playoff game home for our fans. I have a feeling that that hit home with them, and they see the importance of that."
Keep in mind, under NLL rules, the Swarm pay all travel costs for the Stealth to come to the Xcel Energy Center. This isn't about money at this point. According to Arlotta, this is about the fans, noting "I think they're going to have it all out on the line, playing 110%. They're playing this game for the fans."
Looking at the game, the Stealth and Swarm do, indeed, match up well on paper. Both teams have solid offenses, with the Swarm's Ryan Benesch winning the NLL scoring title, and Washington boasting Jeff Zywicki, Lewis Ratcliff, and Rhys Duch.
Asked how much time he has spent preparing for Ryan Benesch, Hall said quickly, "Lots. Clearly if you are facing a team that has the scoring champion in their midst, I wouldn't be doing a very good job if I wasn't spending a heck of a lot a time trying to figure out how to stop that guy."
Both teams also have stellar goaltending, with goalie of the year candidate Nick Patterson for the Swarm having started the All-Star game for the West this season. Washington has had some issues with their two goalies as of late, and Coach Hall has certainly noticed. "If you look at our shots against and our save percentage, you don't need to be a mathematician to figure out we could be better. I have tons of confidence in our goaltenders, both are starting goaltenders in this league. I expect that now that it is playoff time, that both of them will rise to the occasion."
It all comes down to which team's defense can lock down and prevents the most shots from happening in the first place. Swarm GM Marty O'Neill said, "We have to take care of the ball a bit better, and that's what we didn't do so well in Washington. That was a sore spot when we left Washington. We were short handed a few high end players. This is going to be an all out battle, going to be a goaltending battle, and come down to whose defense is more disciplined, and power plays, and whose stars can make their names in the playoffs."
Defense, goaltending, star power. The hallmarks of the playoffs. The mood will be intense, the teams prepared and ready. The fans have been fully worked into a lather, excited and ready for playoff lacrosse.
Let the games begin.