In a season of firsts for your Minnesota Swarm, the only thing better than winning their first playoff game in franchise history last weekend is the fact that the Swarm will be hosting the first West Divisional Championship Game in franchise history next weekend. Read that sentence again… the Swarm is hosting the West Divisional Championship Game at The Hive Saturday night at 8:30 pm. How great is that?!
During the April 28th Toyota Postgame Report in the Iron Range Grill after the regular season finale vs. Colorado, the crowd was pretty pumped up as many in attendance (including several players’ families and friends) were chanting “We Want the Cup! We Want the Cup!!” Heck… we were openly tempting the lacrosse Gods by discussing the possibility of hosting the West Divisional Championship Game. But so much had to unfold in the Divisional Semifinals for that to happen;
• The 3rd seeded Swarm would have to beat the #2 seed Colorado Mammoth in Denver
• The 4th seeded Edmonton Rush would have to upset the heavily favored #1 seed Calgary Roughnecks in Calgary.
But as is so often said in sports… that’s why they play the games.
Part I: The Swarm beats Colorado 14-10: Unable to watch the game on the CBS Sports Network due to a prior commitment in Southern Vermont, I was relegated to watching the scoreboard updates on the NLL.com’s gamecast. From the outset things looked good. “We got off to a good start with leads after the first quarter (5-2) and the first half (8-5),” says Swarm Assistant Coach Aime Caines. “We knew the Mammoth would have their run and they did. But even though John Grant, Jr., the league’s most valuable player and single-season total points record holder, got five goals we weathered the storm. To be honest, even when they cut our lead to 10-9 (on a Grant goal with nearly 11:30 left in the game), there was no panic on our bench. We kept our composure and took care of business by outscoring them 4-1 over the rest of the game.”
Once again a balanced scoring attack that saw nine different guys score (a hat trick for Ryan Benesch, two each from Kevin Ross, Jay Card and Andrew Watt, and single goals from Callum Crawford, Corbyn Tao, Tyler Hass, Rich Morgan and Jordan MacIntosh), coupled with stellar defense and goaltending (Evan “Captain” Kirk had 37 saves on 47 shots) made the difference. When the final whistle blew and the team’s first ever playoff win was etched into the history books, the team was very happy but not in an over-the-top way. “Even though we have so many young guys, this is a team that keeps things in perspective”, says Caines. “When the game ended it got me thinking about how focused we’ve been since day 1 in training camp. It’s been a lot of hard work that’s paid off, but we’re not getting too high. With our young team and 11 guys who’ve never played NLL lacrosse before, we’re really hungry right now. It’s pretty special.”
Part II: The Rush upsets Calgary 19-11: With the team guaranteed a spot in the West Divisional Championship Game, the guys were on the bus heading back to their hotel in Denver, many following the Rush-Roughnecks game online. Would it be too much to ask for the Rush to upset the Roughnecks thereby guaranteeing the Swarm a home playoff game? Apparently not. “Most everyone on the bus was following the game using different cell phones,” says Caines. “And when the game ended and Media Relations Director Alec Schimke announced the final score, we went pretty crazy. Hosting a home playoff game is a big thrill and honor for this team. We had a few goals in mind for this season… three we’ve reached (post a winning record, win a playoff game and host a playoff game) and two still left to complete.”
So it’ll be the Edmonton Rush coming to The Hive next Saturday for the right to represent the West Division in the Champions Cup one week from Saturday. Remember, this is the same Edmonton team that went 1-1 against the Swarm this year with three former Swarm stars on its roster, each with additional motivation to knock off the Swarm, says Caines. “They have former Swarm captain Aaron Wilson (who scored the OT goal that beat the Swarm in Edmonton), as well as Zack Greer and longtime Swarm star Ryan Ward (the first member of the Swarm’s 100 goal club… recently joined by Ryan Benesch). We’ll need our A game to beat them but we’ll be ready.” These two teams couldn’t be more evenly matched. They’ve faced each other twice already this year with both games being decided in overtime: the Swarm winning the second longest game in NLL history on February 10th at The Hive 10-9 on a Ryan Benesch goal 12:23 into the extra session, and the Rush winning 9-8 in Edmonton on Wilson’s goal noted above back on March 31st (ironically that’s the last time the Swarm lost this season). That’s 18 goals apiece with an infinitesimal margin of error. The difference maker could be the insanity that is The Hive.
In this season of so many firsts, this is not only the first time The Hive is hosting the West Divisional Championship Game, it’s the first NLL Divisional Championship Game for almost every member of this team, coaches included; only Jeff Gilbert, who won a Champion’s Cup with the Toronto Rock in 2011 and Rich Morgan, who lost the Champions Cup with the Portland LumberJax in 2008 have been in a game of this magnitude. But even though this is all new to everyone, each and every member of the team completely understands the vagaries of playoff lacrosse. “When you go this deep in the playoffs, you have to keep a level head no matter what happens. There are so many highs and lows in playoff lacrosse you have to make sure not to overreact. Calls are made, calls are missed, but you’ve got to keep your composure throughout the game. That’s the key. And even though we’re young, these guys have bought into that.”
For me, in a cabin in the Southern Vermont woods, keeping my composure was not an option. Doubtful I’ll be able to do that at The Hive Saturday night either. But in a season of firsts, nothing would be more incredible and indelible than seeing Andrew Suitor accept the congratulations of NLL Commissioner George Daniel as Captain of the West Divisional Champion Minnesota Swarm.
Now… about hosting the Champion’s Cup a week from Saturday. Do we even dare go there?!
The Toyota Professor