WLA PLAYOFFS READY TO BEGIN

by Brian Stanton

Article via Teddy Jenner (Inside Lacrosse):

Let the fun begin. With Major Series playoffs in full force, the Western Lacrosse Association postseason kicks off Tuesday night as both semifinal series get underway.

On the last weekend of the regular season, the Victoria Shamrocks were able to leapfrog the New Westminster Salmonbellies to take the first seed and will matchup with the Burnaby Lakers while the ‘Bellies will play the Maple Ridge Burrards in the 2/3 series.

These were the four top teams for much of the season and will provide fans some incredible lacrosse over the course of the possible seven games and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if both series go the distance.

Let’s take a quick look at each series and see how these clubs square up as the Road to the Mann Cup heats up.

1. Victoria (14-4) vs 4 Burnaby (10-7-1)

Season series: 2-1 Victoria (12-9 W, 12-10 L, 9-7 W)

Schedule: Aug. 9, 11, 12, 14, (17, 19, 21)

The defending WLA and Mann Cup champions will be in tough with the young and talented Lakers. This isn’t an easy matchup for Victoria as the Lakers are a very underrated club. All three regular season games were closely contested and Game 1 will probably be the first time both clubs have faced each other with a full roster. Last year, Burnaby missed out on the post-season due to the tie-breakers and will look to make a huge splash starting Tuesday night.

Looking at the stats, one might think Victoria would have the advantage as boasts four of the top five scorers in the WLA. Rhys Duch led the WLA in goals (43) and points (101), and was the league’s first century club member since Curtis Dickson topped that mark back in 2013. Cory Conway raced out to an insurmountable lead in the assists category and he has been the most prolific passer in the WLA over the last few years. Victoria’s offensive depth will be something Burnaby will need to focus on as 2015 scoring champ Corey Small, Jeff Shattler, Jesse King and Chris Wardle are all lethal weapons who can all go off for big nights.

While Burnaby may only have one player in the top 10, that won’t mean it’ll struggle putting up the goals. Robert Church and Scott Jones were noticeably absent during the last meeting between these two teams and will be looked at to lead the way out the front gate. Like their island counterparts, the Lakers have incredible depth offensively with veteran Dane Stevens and young guns Eli McLaughlin and Josh Byrne rounding out one of the best young groups in the league. The addition of Shatter, the 2011 NLL MVP, and having the services of King all series gives Victoria the advantage as they have that much more firepower.

Victoria scored 35 more goals than the next team (New West) and will want to keep Burnaby under as much pressure as possible. Burnaby allowed 10 fewer goals than anyone which makes this series that much more intriguing. The offseason acquisition of Zak Boychuck really helped turn things around for the Lakers and his play this year has been nothing short of spectacular. He’s helped bring a calming nature to Burnaby’s defensive unit and they have been able to shut the door when needed.

It’s interesting to see that both Victoria and Burnaby will deploy starting goalies who were on non-playoff teams in 2015; Boychuck in Nanaimo, Adam Shute in Coquitlam. Shute, like Boychuck has benefited from playing behind a much more cohesive D-unit and has come up big time and time again for Victoria. This will be one of the best matchups to watch but with his body of work over the course of the season, Boychuck gets the advantage here.

Much of a goalie’s success can be a byproduct of the defence that plays in front of him and both of these defensive units will be put on centre stage in this series. Victoria’s back end is led by the Harnett brothers Jon and Greg, Tyler Burton, Ben McCullough and veteran Matt Yager. While they may not be the most imposing or punishing D group Victoria has ever fielded, they are all experienced and tenacious defenders. If Victoria is going to win this series, it will need this group of five to lead the way and be nasty, physical and relentless every shift out.

On the other bench, what Burnaby may lack in experience it surely makes up for in physicality. Matt Beers and Captain Brian Safarik will be lead antagonist for Burnaby and have no issues getting in the face of their opponents and throwing an extra chop or two. There won’t be any easy shifts for the Shamrocks offence so they’ll been to keep their feet moving and heads on swivels in order to stay away from the extremely aggressive Lakers defenders. Both defences will look to punish and wear down the forwards but the experience of the Shamrocks will be the advantage.

Transition is one of Burnaby’s strong points as the Lakers love to run the floor and are led by the ‘Dashing Duo’ of Peter McFetridge and Justin Salt. The tempo will be high for most of these games and if Burnaby can keep its foot on the gas, it could very much help keep Victoria on the back foot. Special teams are a nearly a wash as Victoria had the top PP group and scored the most goals with the man advantage, Burnaby had the league’s top PK unit allowing just 17 goals down a man and both clubs were 1-2 in short-handed goals with Victoria edging Burnaby by one goal.

Experience both in playoffs and Mann Cup should give Victoria the edge in this very equally matched series so depth, secondary scoring and home floor advantage should come in handy: Victoria in six, if not five.

2. New Westminster (12-4-2) v 3 Maple Ridge (11-6-1)

Season series: 1-1-1 (12-12T, 10-6 NW, 13-9 MR)

Schedule: Aug. 9, 12, 13, 15, (17, 20, 22)

This is going to be one heck of a series. Both of these clubs are so evenly matched it’s hard to pick a winner and everything about this series points to a 7-game war. New Westminster dropped its first three games of the year then went undefeated in its next 14only to drop the season finale to the Burrards. Talk about setting the stage. From youth, to goaltending, to special teams it’s going to be a hotly contested battle all over the floor. Things kick off Tuesday night from QPA.

Let’s start in goal which could be, much like the other series, one of the best matchups in this series. For the Salmonbellies, coach Steve Goodwin has continued his trend of platooning his goalies, keeping both Eric Penney and Alexis Buque fresh and ready for the post-season. The needle most likely points at Penney to be the guy to get the start in Game 1 but if it’s Buque, the ‘Bellies will play equally as strong. They have confidence in both tenders and will look to build a wall in front of them.

For the Burrards, there’s no doubt who will be between the pipes as Frankie Scigliano is the starter and led the WLA with 10 wins. Sciggs saw more minutes than any other goalie by more than two full games and he’s fine with the heavy work load. You can bet that he’ll look to step up his game to another level in the post-season but will the defence in front of him be able to keep up? Much like in the other series, the overall body of work by Scigliano gives him and the Burrards the advantage in net.

The guys in front of the goalies will have their work cut out for them as both offences love to push the tempo and are very capable of putting of some big numbers up over the course of 60 minutes. Maple Ridge may have a bit of a “no name” group as its defence isn’t very well known to lacrosse fans outside of B.C., but what it lacks in notoriety, it makes up for tenacity and fieriness.

The surety bond is an afterthought at this point as Maple Ridge has put that well behind it and wants to focus on the here and now. As it’s been doing over the past few games, Maple Ridge has been able to walk that fine line and done a great job staying disciplined, which will be imperative against New Westminster, which has no issues going to the power play over and over. The loss of Creighton Reid early in the year was huge but the likes of Kevin Reid, Dayne Michaud, Clay Miller, Aaron Davis and Zack Porter have all picked up the slack and will look to lean on everyone in red with heavy pressure and a lot of chops.

New West won’t want to get into a stick swinging game with Maple Ridge and that’s not really its m.o. Three names will stand out for lacrosse fans when looking at the Salmonbellies d-gourp as captain Curtis Hodgson, the moustachioed bandit Ian Hawksbee and “Mr. Championship Winner” Jeff Cornwall lead the way. The Salmonbellies play a very composed game defensively, they don’t get too spread out and rely on strong communication and excellent loose-ball work. Both clubs gave up 143 goals during the regular season are as evenly matched as they come.

Special teams are just as tightly contested but you might tip the scales in favour of New Westminster as its PP unit has been together longer, building that chemistry for most of the year while Maple Ridge’s group hasn’t had too many games together this year as much of its top gunners were in and out of the lineup.

Transition isn’t either team’s forte but a run and gun game is very likely as speed kills and both of these groups are rich in athletes out of the back end. Cornwall is obviously no stranger to scoring on the run, rookie Mike Messenger is one of the most naturally gifted athletes in the WLA and Tyler Crompton is a relentless worker that if you’re not careful, will run you over and leave you gasping for breath. Maple Ridge has guys that love running the floor as well and none more prevalent than Zack Porter. He has a never-ending gas tank and like Crompton, has no issues running guys over. New West has a few more horses out of the back and will look to expose Maple Ridge through the middle of the floor.

Out the front door, fans should be in for a real treat as both teams boast a plethora of scoring options on both sides of the floor. New West lit the lamp 21 more times than Maple Ridge but as noted, the ‘Bellies have had their group playing together for most of the year. Logan Schuss, Jordan McBride and Mitch Jones lead the way, giving New West a balanced attack. Schuss has been on a tear as of late and really come into his own this year but it’s been the play of Jones that has really gotten the attention of everyone.

Coming off a Mann Cup in Victoria and Champion’s Cup run with Buffalo, Jones put up career numbers all across the board and has been a massive addition to the ‘Bellies offence. Youngsters Anthony Malcom, Dane Sorensen, Brandon and Justin Goodwin add great depth for New Westminster and their young legs are full of energy and speed.

For Maple Ridge, they’re led by Mike Mallory, who broke up the Shamrock party at the top of the scoring table. Mallory, like Jones, had a career year and will need to keep up those numbers if the Burrards are going to advance. However, there are some names on the Maple Ridge roster that head coach Rob Williams will look to help lessen the work load for Mallory. 2015 WLA MVP Ben McIntosh only factored into 10 games this year and averaged over 3 points per game. Jarrett Davis, Riley Loewen, Coady Adamson and Connor Goodwin all saw limited action during the regular season but once they are all together on the floor, they make up a pretty potent forward group. New Westminster has the chemistry, Maple Ridge has the fire power and once again we have an even matchup.

This series has all the makings of a seven game dandy and with these two teams already playing one OT game during the regular season, it would surprise nobody if we see a few extra free periods of playoff action during this one. Flip a coin; Burrards in 7.

It’s not going to be a cake walk through first round for any team and both matches will be heavily contested start to finish. It all gets going Tuesday night at 7:45 p.m. from Victoria and New Westminster and all games can be streamed live via PPV webcast only on www.playfullscreen.com.