By Andrew Crane | Aug 14, 2021
The PLL’s second doubleheader of the weekend will close with a winner-take-all game for the final playoff spot between the Cannons and Chrome, the first meeting this season between the pair of teams coming at the most pivotal point. Both teams entered the final bye off losses against the Atlas, with the Cannons dropping a one-goal game and the Chrome falling by nine in Colorado Springs.
And now the pair of teams, led by former MLL head coaches in Sean Quirk and Tim Soudan, and their respective storylines will meet in Albany — the collegiate stadium of Lyle Thompson, the final regular-season games for Joel White and John Galloway — for the No. 7 seed. The Cannons have one of most efficient offenses in the league, but the Chrome are starting to get players back from injuries, especially at the defensive end, at the right time and could capitalize on the league’s worst faceoff unit’s 35% clip.
“It's definitely a playoff game, started a week early for us,” Soudan said. “But I think there's excitement around that.”
Another one-goal loss?
Quirk could sense the effect of multiple one-goal losses building up. It was the fifth week of the season in Minnesota, and three one-goal losses in four games to open the season had been followed by four- and nine-goal defeats — the latest a 19-7 blowout by the Waterdogs, who they’d defeated for their only win earlier in the year, at TCO Stadium. So he called a team meeting outside the Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel, planning for it to last around 15 or 20 minutes on that Saturday in between games against the Waterdogs and the Archers.
By the time it ended, an hour had passed. Players opened up to one another, discussing how those one-goal losses were frustrating, beat them down and wore them out. But, Quirk said, his players also felt like they were a “tight-knit group.” They felt they were close, that they could compete with any team in the league, and the one-goal loss margins reflected that. The next day, the Cannons defeated the Archers by one goal, earning their second victory heading into the All-Star Weekend.
“I think that's what's been most impressive about this group is you have never seen them lie down really in any game,” Quirk said. Even that Waterdogs game, which was a tough one.”
Quirk said that the Cannons are often playing from behind and trying to erase multiple-tally deficits late in the game, something that stems from a lack of possessions compared to opponents. Those issues start at the faceoff stripe, where Kevin Reisman has won 37% of attempts and Peyton Smith has done just one percentage point better at 38. They might experiment a bit on the wings against the Chrome, Quirk said, but “nothing crazy.”
Chrome tends to play a physical, isolated style of defense, Cannons assistant coach Sean Kirwan said, and that’ll force them to win one-on-one matchups instead of waiting for slides to come and capitalizing on the rotation holes. That’ll place a heightened pressure on those offensive players with short-sticks on them — whether it be Stephen Rehfuss, Shayne Jackson or others — to create their own opportunities and serve as a facilitator in the extra space if the Chrome’s defense does budge and slide.
“We gotta earn every slide we can get, every rotation we can get,” Kirwan said. “And if they're really going to be stubborn and not do it, we gotta be able to run by our guy and put the ball in the net off the dodge.”
Jackson impressed at training camp before running into Visa issues and not appearing in the Cannons lineup until July 3 against Chaos, and he’s scored eight times in the four games since. He spent most of his time floating off-ball, putting pressure on the defense and forcing them to keep eyes turned toward his cuts, and served as a seamless plug-and-play in place of Andrew Kew in their third attack spot.
“For him to get back and then, most importantly, get comfortable has been big,” Kirwan said.
Player to Watch: James Barclay, defenseman, Chrome
When Will Haus went down with an injury earlier in the season, missing each of Chrome’s games since July 11, Barclay became a hybrid defender for Soudan. He inherited a top defensive short-stick role for a bit, then slid back down to close defense when Jesse Bernhardt injured himself in a June 13 game. And quickly, he became one of Galloway’s favorite defenders in front of the cage, Soudan said.
But with both Haus and Bernhardt activated ahead of Saturday’s game, defensive lineups become a juggling act for Soudan — and Barclay, with his seven caused turnovers and nine ground balls, is at the center. At times, he could be used to rest Haus in the first half, giving the Chrome more short-stick depth than they already have. Other times, or if something flares up with Bernhardt’s injury, Barclay could slide back down in front of the cage. It’s extra flexibility and extra defensive depth, for once, that Soudan has to worry about.
“We just have to be careful and manage their legs with Haus and Bernhardt,” Soudan said, “because anytime you're coming off a muscle strain or muscle pull or whatever, as soon as you get fatigued is when there becomes an issue again.”
Stat to Know: 31%, 92
Despite only winning twice this season, the Cannons held the PLL’s second-highest efficiency rate and have scored the third-most goals with 31% and 92, respectively, entering the weekend. The Atlas also held a 31% clip — both teams trailed the Archers by 4% — and scored a league-high 102 goals, while the Waterdogs sit second at 93.
Kirwan said earlier this week that he tries to not be too “results-driven,” rather looking to see whether possessions ended with quality shot attempts or if an unforced turnover or poor decision thwarted the offensive possession instead.
“That's where you can kind of really strip away the factors that necessarily aren't in the offensive control, like what's going on the other side of the ball and in the specialty areas, and just really focus on 'OK, are we doing our part, are we doing our job?'” Kirwan said. “And for the most part, I feel like we've been doing that.”
The case for the Cannons:
If the Cannons flip their one-goal losses and turn them into wins, they’d be 6-2 and tied atop the PLL standings heading into the final weekend. That’s a hypothetical scenario, but those losses were shaped by lapses at the faceoff X and offensive stalls until late in the game — something that can be fixed, especially against a similar type of opponent. If Thompson and others can string together goals early, that’ll provide a buffer in case Chrome’s Connor Farrell finds a groove at the stripe.
“We’re battle-tested,” Quirk said.
The case for the Chrome:
The only team to allow more goals this season than the Chrome this season (94) is the Cannons (107), and that’s a defense that Jackson Morrill could find success against. Soudan selected him No. 28 in this year’s PLL College Draft, his final selection in the fourth round that turned into somebody that they couldn’t keep off the field by the end of training camp — because “if you're deep enough to have that guy on the bench, you're in pretty good shape,” Soudan said.
Morrill’s a “full package,” a former Denver and Yale attackman who works in-and-out on his defenders and can keep his hands free when in a facilitation role, Soudan said. He’s scored 15 goals this season, and his ability to pierce the Cannons defense will directly correlate to whether or not they end the game with a playoff berth.