Minnesota hosts the Edmonton Rush this Saturday at 8:30 p.m. CT on CBS Sports Network during the West Division Finals. Photo Credit: Alex Carroll
"The Energy Guys" - Nik Bilic and Dan Ball. Photo Credit: Alex Carroll
The Young Guns did it again.
This time though, they made a little more noise in the process.
You see, all weeklong they heard it all.
The Swarm has never won a playoff game…
Minnesota is too young…
Grant Jr. and Co. are too good on offense…
The crowd in Colorado will be too much…
Colorado is the more talented team…
But like they did in the regular season after being tagged as the only team that would miss the postseason, the Young Guns didn’t listen.
Instead, they wrote their own history on Saturday, pulling out a gutsy 14-10 road victory against the Colorado Mammoth in the West Divisional Semifinals.
The win probably came as a surprise to many in the lacrosse world, but not to those inside the visiting locker room at Pepsi Center.
If you’ve followed the Swarm from training camp, you remember head coach Joe Sullivan being quoted as saying that the Swarm would be the hardest working team in the NLL in 2012. And as we’ve seen this season, those weren’t just words on a piece of paper, that statement was a promise.
So here we are, and Minnesota is exactly where it wanted to be from Day 1: in position to win a Champions Cup.
If you look up and down the Swarm’s roster, you won’t find a team full of big name players. But a roster stacked with superstars doesn’t necessarily win championships, and a fair share of teams found that out the hard way after first round exits this past weekend.
That’s where the hard work factor comes into play and puts a wrench in the postseason. To quote Sullivan again from the preseason, “Hard work will beat talent any day.”
This past Saturday, that statement couldn’t have been any truer.
Consider this: Colorado touted the 2012 NLL MVP and single season point record holder in John Grant Jr; they had the Rookie of the Year in Adam Jones; and they had a 10 win goalie in Chris Levis.
The Mammoth had all of the accolades as well as the league’s second best record on Saturday night. Excluding the final few weeks of the regular season, Colorado was the top dog in the NLL in 2012.
In the end, none of that mattered and the Mammoth’s dreams of a title run vanished two minutes in when forward Corbyn Tao put the Swarm ahead 1-0 early. Minnesota would never look back, building leads of 5-1 in the first, 6-2 in the second, 9-5 in the third, en route to a 14-10 final.
Tao, was one of nine rookies on the floor Saturday for the Swarm, who fielded the youngest team in the league this season.
“They’re our little muckers as we call them,” forward Ryan Benesch said. “They haven’t played like rookies all season, they’ve played like their seasoned vets. My hats off to them. The way that they play brings energy to the team and we feed off them.”
The self-proclaimed “muckers” entered Pepsi Center with a simple agenda in mind this past weekend: continue to play their brand of lacrosse.
And why not? After all, this fast-paced, hard-nosed, grind you out style of lacrosse, had only fueled four straight wins to close the regular season.
More than anything though, the lacrosse the Swarm is playing right now frustrates its opponents unlike any team is capable of in the NLL. On Saturday, Colorado fell victim to it for the second straight week. Having watched the game from the sidelines, it was quite evident that Minnesota’s speed was causing problems on Colorado’s end, especially on transition. If one play comes to mind, it has to be Tyler Hass’ goal to open the scoring in the third quarter. Hass literally outran the Mammoth’s entire offense the full length of the field to sink one of two shorthanded goals for Minnesota. The bad news for opposing teams: there’s literally no way to slow down the 6-foot-6 transition player once when he gets going.
In the end, the Mammoth’s frustration proved to be costly, as they were called for three penalties in the fourth quarter that resulted in three Swarm power play goals.
Colorado, who entered the game with a league-high 58.3% conversion rate on the power play, finished a lowly 2-for-7 on the night. Credit that stat to goalie Evan Kirk and the big bodies that built a wall on the Swarm’s penalty kill unit.
To put it simply, Kirk’s performance was heroic. When Minnesota faced several penalties in the first half, Kirk shut the door on the Mammoth, even killing a 5-on-3 opportunity.
“Evan made saves that he had no right making,” Sullivan said.
Other than giving up eight goals to Grant Jr. and Jones, Kirk blanketed the rest of the Mammoth’s offense to just two goals. And to get those eight goals, Kirk made Grant Jr. and Jones work. The two combined to take 30 shots.
While Kirk got the start Saturday, there wasn’t a person in the locker room more thrilled about his performance than teammate Tyler Carlson. Despite winning the last two regular season games, Carlson sat on the bench against Colorado, while Kirk started. That didn’t bother Carlson though, and regardless of who is starting week in and week out, you won’t find a closer ‘tender tandem in the league. These two support each other regardless of who is starting and together they have teamed up to create the most dynamic goalie duo in recent memory.
While Colorado’s offense was reliant solely on Grant Jr. and Jones, Minnesota’s offense on the other hand continued to feature a balanced attack, which is something that had haunted the team in years’ past, particularly in the postseason. On Saturday, nine different Swarm players scored, compared to Colorado’s four.
“Our offense is clicking,” Benesch said. “We’re moving the ball and our feet. We’re burying our chances when we get them.”
After being held scoreless last year in the postseason, Benesch came to Denver looking like a player with something to prove, and he did just that.
Benesch looked calm and poised out on the floor and led the Swarm with a playoff career-high seven points (3g, 4a). He picked his spots well and they proved to be deadly. With 45 seconds left in the first half, Benesch tallied his second power play goal to give the Swarm an 8-5 lead heading into halftime. The Mammoth had no answer for his outside shot all night long.
As in any game, Minnesota did have its low points at times. But with those downs, came resilience and a willingness to stick its gameplan.
Ahead 10-9 in the fourth quarter, the momentum that Minnesota had built all game long was slowly slipping away. At that point, Colorado had gone on a 4-1 run thanks in part to four straight goals from Grant Jr., who was in a serious groove, to get within one.
Minnesota was in desperate need of a score to quiet a re-energized crowd and a Mammoth squad. Another goal from Colorado would have tied the game at 10. At that point, we could have had a whole new game.
Fortunately for Swarm fans, that didn’t happen because another rookie rose to the occasion. As we all know, there are certain moments in sports when a single play can be described as a game-changer. Jordan MacIntosh had exactly one of those moments Saturday.
The April Rookie of the Month buried the first of three fourth quarter power play goals to give the Swarm a two-goal lead at 11-9 with 7:16 left. The score ended a dry spell of almost 10 minutes without a tally.
While MacInotsh’s goal didn’t close the door on Colorado’s chance at a comeback, it gave Minnesota that extra breath of air it needed to start its final knockout punch.
When fellow rookie Jay Card extended the lead to 12-9 a few minutes later on another power play chance, the floodgates opened. Callum Crawford then nailed an outside shot 34 seconds later to give the Swarm a four-goal lead. His authoritative fist pump immediately afterward in celebration left 14,000-plus Mammoth fans shaking their heads and headed toward the exits.
It was at that moment that Swarm players and fans alike could feel it: a playoff win was coming.
For Crawford and the other Swarm vets that had suffered playoff losses the past two years, winning this one felt good.
As much credit has been given to the strong play of Minnesota’s young core, the veterans on the team embraced the offseason’s changes as positive as you possibly could have and provided clutch play when called upon. The likes of Kevin Ross, Rich Morgan, Andrew Watt, and Joe Cinosky – four players that have been around for the ups and downs - all had themselves one heck of a game Saturday.
And then there’s Jeff Gilbert, who the Swarm acquired this offseason after he won a Champions Cup with Toronto. Gilbert has been the Swarm’s rock on defense this season and has added a calming factor that is unprecedented. Swarm play-by-play announcer Jake Elliott even joked with Gilbert afterward, “You just win wherever you go, don’t you?”
In the locker room following the Swarm’s first playoff victory in six tries, there was little talk of it being the team’s first. Sure, it was nice to get that monkey off their back, but Saturday’s locker room featured a new group of guys and a different aura than in years past. For this group, this was their first playoff win and it was their moment. Right now, they’re 1-0.
“The energy in that room after the game was super high,” Benesch said. "We’re playing our game and we’re winning. It’s unbelievable.”
In an NLL season that has gone anything according to plan, it maybe should come as no surprise that No. 3 Minnesota and No. 4 Edmonton – the other so-called unexpected winner on Saturday night – find themselves in the West Division Finals. While most thought it would the East that would see upsets in the first round, it was the West that saw its top two seeds fall.
Minnesota and Edmonton will meet for the third time this weekend, and do so with similar storylines heading into the game. Both teams will be labeled as “overachievers” in the eyes of many, but not to those inside their respective locker rooms.
And if the regular season gave us any sort of preview of what’s to come in the West Division Finals, why wouldn’t we have wanted these two teams playing against each other? Both games resulted in overtime finishes, including the second longest game in NLL history back on Feb. 10 at Xcel Energy Center when the Swarm won 10-9.
Swarm fans: After a wild weekend, you will now get the chance to be part of history on Saturday. The Champions Cup is only a game away and having met so many of you over the years, no fans deserve this chance more than you guys.
To play off Swarm players a bit, this season has indeed been Neverland-esque. It’s a tale we’ll tell over and over again, and the best part, it’s not over quite yet.