By Andrew Crane | Aug 12, 2021
For Andy Towers, the 2021 season started with a lot of patchwork. He expected to have 30 players for Chaos’ week of training camp, but ended up with 23 due to Visa issues and injuries. Most of those absences impacted his offense, the same one that stumbled to an 0-4 start during the Championship Series but then ripped off 19- and 13-goal games, season-high outputs, when the playoffs began.
This time, the injuries carried over into the season. Towers didn’t have five practices — let alone anything beyond one the night before games — to implement changes and tweaks for the new players that plugged temporary holes. Each practice, each workout, was like “day one.” Chaos could roll out a consistent defense, he said, “but we didn't have a complete offensive lineup let alone a complete offensive lineup with everybody playing in the position that we brought them to our club to play.” There was no connectivity, no fluidity within the scheme, and that surfaced during their three consecutive losses to open the 2021 season, including a four-goal loss to the Archers.
Then, before facing the Redwoods in Long Island, Ryan Smith was activated from the Unavailable to Travel list. Towers snagged CJ Costabile from the Player Pool. They won their first game that weekend, picked up Chase Fraser before the next weekend and won three more games after that. They could add another player soon in attackman Curtis Dickson, who propelled their run to the finals last year with 12 goals and six assists in seven games, but Towers said he doesn’t know if he’ll be available for this weekend due to continued travel issues.
“We finally have healthy depth at all positions on the offensive end,” Towers said, “and that has allowed us to play closer to our ultimate ability and capabilities.”
Their next test comes against the team who handed them that final loss before the winning streak started. Before the league-wide bye, the Archers snapped a three-game losing streak and strengthened their hold on a bid for the top seed — one that a pair of wins in Albany, paired with an Atlas loss, could thrust into their grasp. The pair will meet again, in perhaps another playoff preview, at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, with each roster defined by different season-long trends now than they were in June, and the result after 48 minutes will reflect just how far the pair of teams have come.
“I think everybody's got enough talent to win the championship,” Towers said, “and ultimately, it comes down to which teams are the most connected at the most important part of the season. And that is certainly right now.”
All-time series: 3-1
Archers evened their all-time record against Chaos with a 12-8 win in Atlanta on June 13, allowing just two goals across the rest of the game after falling behind 6-1 in the second quarter. Will Manny led the Archers’ offense with five goals, while Grant Ament and Tom Schreiber added a pair of tallies each. Fifteen faceoffs wins by Stephen Kelly and an 88% save percentage for Adam Ghitelman after he entered to start the second half paced their defense, which allowed only Dhane Smith to record a multi-goal game for the Chaos.
Before that, the pair of teams met in the semifinals of the 2020 Championship Series Elimination Round — with Chaos pulling away, 13-9, to advance to the finals against the Whipsnakes — and Chaos swept the two games during the PLL’s inaugural season the year before.
“It's two teams that know each other,” Bates said.
The tipping point for Bates came against the Cannons. It was July 11, and the Archers hadn’t won more than 41% of faceoffs in two games with Stephen Kelly at the stripe. So Bates switched the lineup and inserted rookie Conor Gaffney, and that decision backfired with just a 39% success rate.
It was a “tough spot” for Bates to insert the rookie into, even against the PLL’s worst faceoff unit, he said. Because of the limitations that a 19-man lineup presents, he couldn’t dress a backup, in this case Kelly, to spell Gaffney during mid-game slumps without compromising the depth that other position groups had.
“Putting him in a full game, a big game, probably isn't fair,” Bates said, “but we wanted to give him a shot.”
Still, Bates thought Gaffney flashed potential. He’s more of a “counter guy,” using a slightly different approach to the clamp-and-escape sequence. But by inserting Kelly back in as the starter against the Redwoods — trying to counter something as unpredictable as Rock-Paper-Scissors with his veteran, Bates said — the Archers returned to a player who understood the tendencies of opponents at the stripe, someone whose ability to escape as a “nimble athlete” can complement the improvements from the wings that Bates is searching for. It only resulted in wins on 32% of faceoffs, but Kelly’s seven ground balls were the most since the previous meeting with the Chaos.
The Archers and Chaos are the two teams right above the Cannons in faceoff rankings, just narrowly avoiding that spot in the bottom of the league, at 43% and 40%, respectively. The former is a bit inflated because of an outlier when Kelly won 71% of his faceoffs against the Chaos in Atlanta, but that came against Kyle Gallagher, making his PLL debut. Now it’ll be Max Adler, the “student of the position” who’s worked on being at the front end of the whistle more, Towers said, and has won 65% and 48% of his faceoffs in two of the last three games.
“We're hoping that Max will give (Kelly) some fits and I'm confident that he will,” Towers said, “especially with the support that we're giving him on the wings. We're starting to figure out who we are in those areas as well, and ultimately, it is a three-on-three ground ball.”
Two top defenses
In terms of defensive efficiency, the Archers and Chaos hold two of the PLL’s top three units, with the former allowing a league-low 63 goals and the latter allowing the second-fewest at 79. Goalies Ghitelman and Blaze Riorden have headlined those defenses, and they’re both tied for the PLL lead with a 61% save percentage. Riorden leads the league with 124 saves, including 20 — one shy of his season-high — against the Chrome heading into the bye week.
“They got sort of a revitalized defense,” Towers said about the Archers, though they’ve allowed 12 or more goals in their last three games after not allowing more than eight in their opening four.
Player to watch: Josh Byrne
After recording nine points across his first four games, Byrne has led Chaos with five in each of the past three games. His blend of one-point goals and assists has sparked the Chaos’ offensive resurgence since the Georgia weekend. Byrne trails PLL leaders Grant Ament, Jeff Teat and Lyle Thompson by just five points.
But against the Archers, defender Graeme Hossack held Byrne to a season-low one point. He didn’t score a goal — the only time this season that happened — and managed one assist. Two months later, Byrne’s ability to win the matchup against Hossack, either scoring goals or facilitating the offense through Ryan Smith, Dhane Smith and others, will key offensive success Chaos has.
“I thought Graeme played a great game that game against Byrne, and Byrne's one of the best ones out there,” Bates said. “So he's gonna come out ready to challenge.”
Stat to know: 45
Chaos is the only PLL team with fewer than 50 shots recorded at the six spots tracked inside the two-point arc — low righty wing, low lefty wing, doorstep, high righty wing, high lefty wing and middle. Their highest number is 45 attempts from the middle, where they shoot 33%, but they lead the PLL with 2-point attempts at 52. That’s part of the reason for the low attempt numbers inside the arc, but Chaos also has the fewest total shot attempts in the league this season with 222.
The Archers, by contrast, have attempted 63 shots from the middle, 57 from the high righty wing and a league-low 22 2-point attempts.