Group Play in Review: Underdogs, Award Winners, and Predictions
By PLL | Aug 3, 2020
The first week of the Championship Series is over, group play is complete, and the elimination rounds await. Our writers got together to talk about the Whipsnakes dominance, Chaos’ confusing drop-off, the league MVP, and other award races heading into the tournament.
The top story of group play was the Whipsnakes dominance. They went 4-0 with a ridiculous +24 goal differential. Can anyone take down the defending champs, and if so, how can you beat the Whipsnakes?
Jerome Taylor: Well, I think it starts with finding a way to contain Joe Nardella at the stripe. Nardella has been crushing whoever lines his stick up across from him. To beat the ‘Whips, a team is going to be willing to really muck it up at the stripe, turn the face-offs into scrums as much as you can. Then you may have a chance if you can keep the ball from that offense. And be smart against the best defense in the league.
Josh Schafer: This one is tough because normally you’d say a team that does something well the Whipsnakes don’t do great, but through four games that hasn’t existed. It’ll take a team like the Waterdogs or Chrome, who have elite level faceoff talent and experience on their defense. The Archers proved on Sunday that just running with the Whips offense isn’t a good enough plan. To beat the Whipsnakes, a team will need to negate Nardella and finish on long, sustained possessions.
Marisa Ingemi: If it feels like the Whipsnakes are unstoppable, they just might be. This is such a strong league and every roster looks like an All-Star team, and the Whips have dismantled the best of the best. Of course, in a single-elimination tournament, the wildest things can change course, but on paper, it’s tough to see anyone taking them down.
Doug Greenberg: Josh makes a great point: beating the Whips isn’t about trying to keep up with them on offense, but rather beating them with defense and faceoffs. Three of Whips’ past opponents -- Atlas, Archers, and Chaos -- were bottom four in shots against, while Redwoods, Chaos, and Atlas represented the bottom of the league in terms of faceoff percentage. Whipsnakes haven’t had to face a strong defensive-minded team yet, but they will if Waterdogs win their first Elimination Round game.
Atlas struggled in group play going 1-3. The team came into the Championship Series with high hopes, but they haven’t come to fruition. What’s it going to take for this Atlas team to get going?
JT: It’s time for Rob Pannell to rip the suit & tie off, dispose of the glasses and become the superman that Atlas brought him in to be. Pannell hasn’t been bad, and his 11 points indicate that, but it’s time for Clark Kent to become the Man of Steel.
JS: Atlas needs to distribute the ball more often and quicker. Too many of its dodges have led to nothing but wasted time on an already short shot clock. Look for Atlas to pass quicker off the dodge and score more assisted goals. That’ll be a sign that offense is headed in the right direction.
MI: The concern going into the season for Atlas is so many guys used to having the ball, and it’s certainly been an adjustment for them. They need to pass more and set up open looks, and that would be a step in the right direction.
DG: The defense needs to step up. Jack Concannon has played very well, making 58 saves for a 58 save percentage, but he’s had to be great because Atlas has given up the second-most shots in the tournament. Tucker Durkin may still be getting warmed up, and they’ll need him to be at the top of his game if they’re going to make moves in the Elimination Rounds.
The Waterdogs are the other 1-3 team heading into the tournament. The ‘Dogs picked up the franchise’s first win on Saturday. What has to change for them to keep Saturday’s momentum going throughout the elimination rounds?
JT: I think someone will have to step up on attack when it’s time to get a goal. Two of the ‘Dogs losses in group play have come because of elongated second half droughts. When the team goes scoreless for two and a half minutes, who is the guy that says "enough of this" and takes the momentum back?
JS: The Waterdogs need to continue to make games a scrap and dominate opponents physically. Teams aren’t built to run the floor like the Waterdogs, and with Zach Currier healthy, the club needs to push transition more. Between Drew Simoneau, Jake Withers, and a stacked group at the wings, they have the ability to dominate possession. Through four games, the Waterdogs never established an offensive alpha, and by that standard that might be OK. They say their style is selfless play so perhaps their best plan moving forward is continuing to cause turnovers and capitalizing once the ball is on the turf.
MI: If the Waterdogs wanted to they could absolutely dominate time of possession and that’s the best way to keep the opposition off the board, at least. They’ve had moments even in defeat where they look like a team that can contend.
DG: One thing to keep in mind is that three of Waterdogs’ games have been decided by one point and the other was decided by two. This is a team that could have a winning record if a few things go their way. What we saw out of them against Chaos was very encouraging, so hopefully, they can just transfer the momentum on their own.
Chaos finished group play winless. Coming off a season where they won the most regular-season games, the drop off has been stunning. What will it take for the Chaos to regain last year’s swagger?
JT: It starts at the stripe for Chaos, they are heading into tournament play tied for last in faceoff percentage (31%). Tommy Kelly needs to make some adjustments so that last year’s Bomb Squad can reemerge. Also, the team just isn’t striking fear in transition like they did last year. If Chaos can start getting some more live-ball turnovers, that offense has more than enough firepower to light up any team.
JS: Chaos just needs more shots. Chaos goalie Blaze Riorden has saved more shots than anyone in the tournament, yet his team has attempted the least. With Riorden dominating one end of the field, Chaos needs to take more chances on the offensive side and put the ball on cage.
MI: There’s a lot of reasons Chaos has struggled to get off the ground, from not shooting enough to some faceoff woes. At some point, you have to imagine that the scoring issue works itself out with as much talent as they have, but that takes making a lot more shots.
DG: This team needs to get the ball out of its defensive end. The most shots allowed combined with the fewest shots taken indicates that they’re getting dominated in the middle of the field, so, as Jerome mentioned, winning faceoffs will be crucial to their success. From there, it’ll be about the defense making stops and causing turnovers, which they’ve done a poor job of for the most part so far.
Outside of the Whipsnakes, which team do you think can make a run and shock some people during the tournament?
JT: My sleeper is probably Chrome. The team started the series hot, and their only loss came against Archers in OT. With Thor (Connor Farrell), Chrome can challenge anyone at the stripe. And the backline is loaded with stalwarts. They started this season on a mission, and they can accomplish those goals.
MI: The Archers would be an easy choice, given the way they performed in group play, but no one is hotter than Chrome entering the elimination games. But a deep, deep sleeper? The Waterdogs could go on a run if it all comes together for them.
JS: I’ll combine the answers from above. Experience in net with John Galloway, a strong faceoff unit, and a potent offense give Chrome the best chance. Outside of them, my sleeper pick would be the Waterdogs. They have the ability to make any game a battle through sound team defense and faceoff execution. In a tournament, frustrating a team from its normal game could prove to be quite the disruptor.
DG: Chrome has looked as good as anyone so far: they competed with Archers and almost won, and I think most people would agree that Archers have been the second-best team in the tournament. All this said I don’t think we’ve seen the best out of Redwoods yet, so be on the lookout for them to make a statement in the Elimination Rounds.
Most players don’t like to talk about individual accolades during the season, but we do. So, after group play, who does everyone currently have as their MVP?
JT: I’m taking the chef, Matt Rambo. He’s been slow-cooking for quite some time but a record-breaking 10-point performance in a game for the top seed proved why he’s the reigning MVP. Not to mention he’s the head honcho on a team that hasn’t lost in 344 days, and if that isn’t enough, he leads the league in assists (15) and points (21). Not sure there’s anybody in the league who can take over a game like he can. He gets my pick.
MI: It has to be Joe Nardella. He hasn’t had a game with less than 70 percent at the faceoff dot and has made guys like Trevor Baptiste look inferior. The Whips are deep everywhere, but Nardella has really set the tone for that team the entire tournament.
JS: Right now it’s Joe Nardella. No player has dominated the faceoff stripe like him and it’s led to scoring runs in all of the Whipsnakes wins. If Chaos somehow pull off a few upsets, don’t sleep on Blaze Riorden either. He’s kept Chaos in every game thus far and no one is close to his 75 saves.
DG: I’ll go against the grain and say Zed Williams. Rambo was obviously phenomenal in Whipsnakes’ last game, but Zeddy Ballgame has been the most consistent piece of this Whips attack. He has a wide six-goal lead over the rest of the field and no defense has found an answer for him yet.
The Rookie Of The Year seems like a two-person race. But there can be some surprises, who has been the best rookie?
JT: Two words, ten letters: Grant Ament. The number one draft pick has exceeded expectations so far. Coming out of college, Ament worried about his ability to earn slides at the pro level so he can set up his masterful passing. Those worries are long gone. He’s second in the league in assists with 11, and for good measure, he’s second in overall points too with 17. Ament is an artist and X is his studio.
MI: Grant Ament. He’s shown he can play with the pros and it’s no problem, already second in the league in assists, and he’s made a difference for the Archers. He doesn’t feel like a rookie, he just looks like a pro lacrosse player out there.
JS: Grant Ament (17 points) has been electrifying and has impacted his team the most. Bryan Costabile (9 points) has played well in his own right for Atlas, but Ament’s initiated too much offense for the Archers to not be the Rookie of the Year at this point.
DG: It’s gotta be Grant Ament. Bryan Costabile has been outstanding in his own right, but the two rookies have the same number of one-point goals and Ament has ten more assists. He is the cog that runs this Archers attack, so for him to take on that responsibility so efficiently in his first season definitely warrants ROTY honors.
This is more of a predictive question, based on style of play and probable matchups; who do you think ends the Championship Series with the most goals, to take home the Golden Stick?
JT: I’m going with the man with many nicknames, Zed Williams. Zedzilla benefits from his offense having the ball all the time thanks to Nardella and he also gets to receive feeds from the reigning MVP, Matt Rambo. Zeddy Ballgame already leads the league with 14 goals, expect to see him continue to take advantage of defenses reacting to Rambo, finding open space and picking his spot. If that doesn't work, he can use his big frame to back defenders down, or set up his pretty pirouette; his inside roll definitely keeps his primary defender up the night before.
JS: Part of this question depends on who we think will make it the furthest and play more games. While Jerome’s pick of the current leader by a wide margin, Zed Williams, makes sense, the Whipsnakes will play at least one less game then one team in the championship game. Watch out for Justin Gutterding (8G) on Chrome, if they’re going to make a run it’ll likely be due to the Wolf-Gutterding combination.
MI: I love the Zed Williams pick and have to go with that as well. If he wasn’t already renowned as a dangerous scorer in the lacrosse realm, this tournament would be regarded as his breakout campaign. He’s done so much to finish for a team that’s given him the chance to get scoring opportunities, but those chances mean nothing if someone like Williams isn’t there to bury them.
DG: I’ll go with my MVP pick, Zed Williams, as well. Josh’s point of teams playing more games is valid, so in that case, watch out for Archers’ Christian Mazzone, or Chrome’s Justin Guterding or Jordan Wolf depending on which team makes the deeper run.
And for the position-specific awards, based on what you saw, and moving forward, who do you have as your Eamon McEneaney Attackman of the Year?
JT: Have to go with ‘The Chef’ on this one. Rambo has been a slow and steady presence for the Whipsnakes on offense for most of group play. Then he just exploded for a record-breaking 10-points in case anyone needed a reminder of why he racked up the hardware last year. Rambo proved in Sunday’s matchup against Archers that there is a gear that he can go to, that no one can match.
JS: Right now it’s Matt Rambo. In the biggest game of group play, with some of the other candidates for this award across the field, Rambo reminded everyone why he was last year’s MVP. If the chef keeps serving up like he did in that 10-point performance, he’ll run away with this one.
MI: The Whipsnakes are racking up award nominations and it makes sense, given what they’ve done in this tournament to date, so no reason to believe this isn’t Matt Rambo. The Whips have a ton of offensive options and Rambo ranks near the most polished of the bunch, staying consistent game in and game out, but with the potential to put up literally a 10-point game now and again.
DG: Ideally, I want this award to go to the Whipsnakes attackman who doesn’t win MVP. I picked Zedzilla for MVP, so I guess my pick here would be Matt Rambo, but I wouldn’t be surprised or upset if it works in reverse. Either way, it has to be someone on Whips.
How about the Dave Pietramala Defenseman of the Year?
JT: So this is probably the toughest decision to make, and because the choices don't have enough distance between them, the separation is going to have to occur in tournament play. But right now, I have the Whipsnakes’ Michael Erhardt, slightly above Archers’ Matt McMahon based on Erhardt’s offensive threat combined with his ability to be gnat-like to opposing offenses.
JS: I think this one gets decided during the playoffs as we see which defender can make a big name offensive player disappear, but for now it has to be someone on the Whipsnakes. Through four games, Michael Ehrhardt has been a pest at LSM for the Whipsnakes and has also contributed in transition, which I’d argue is part of a defender’s job. See Joe Keegan’s 10-man ride for more on Ehrhardt.
MI: Well, looking at just the numbers, Cade van Raaphorst has been solid by leading the league in caused turnovers with 10 -- two more than the next leader, John Sexton -- and has added 15 ground balls, behind just Michael Ehrhardt for long poles, so there’s a compelling case there.
DG: It won’t always show up in the stat sheets, but Matt Dunn has been fantastic for Whipsnakes. He’s controlled every matchup he’s had and is a big reason the Whips have allowed the second-fewest shots. He even made a save in goal against Atlas.
And everyone’s Gait Brothers Midfielder of the Year?
JT: Sergio Perkovic from Redwoods. Going into tournament play, he has six two-pointers. No one else has half of that; the threat of a Perkovic two-bomb changes every game the Redwoods are involved in. This pick is a bit speculative, too; Perk seems to have just started to find a rhythm from distance, ripping two against Atlas. If his play continues, he’ll be one of the biggest game-changers during the tournament.
JS: Zach Currier. He’s played one less game than most players, but still has the highest ground ball total of any non-faceoff specialist. He’s dominated the wings on faceoff and flashed two-way capability when he scored the Waterdogs game-winning goal on Saturday. The Waterdogs midfield just looks better when Currier is on the field and at its core that’s what this award is all about.
MI: I love the way Zach Currier has played when he’s been in there. I like the Sergio Perkovic pick as well, especially with his performance on Saturday, but Currier has done a ton picking up ground balls and those little things that go with scoring, too.
DG: I’ll say Zach Currier right now because of how he’s played on both ends of the field, but don’t sleep on Mike Chanenchuk. He has the second-most two-pointers behind Sergio Perkovic, but Channy brings a level of versatility that Perk can’t match. I don’t think we’ve seen Chanenchuk’s best yet so watch for him in the coming games.
The goalies have been outstanding, who’s your pick for the Oren Lyons Goalie of the Year?
JT: This one is pretty cut and dry, its Blaze Riorden. Riorden has already broken his own PLL record for saves in a game (23) in group play. He currently has 17 more saves than the next closest goalie. Enough said.
JS: Blaze Riorden. The dude has more than 20 saves in three games. It’s just that simple.
MI: Tough to argue against Blaze Riorden, even with an 0-4 team at the time of publishing.
DG: Blaze Riorden. He’s faced the most shots in the league and still somehow has the highest save percentage.
This one will probably be unanimous too, but who has been the best guy at the stripe? Who’s taking home the Paul Cantabene Faceoff Man of the Year Award?
JT: It has to be Nardella. The man is winning three-quarters of his faceoffs against the best faceoff specialists in the world. If Nardella’s performance in group play continues into the tournament it's going to make the Whips near-impossible to beat.
JS: Right now, it has to be Nardella and his 78% faceoff percentage but don’t sleep on the possibility of a duo winning whether it be from the Archers (Stpehen Kelly and Brendan Fowler) or the Waterdogs (Jake Withers and Drew Simoneau).
MI: It’s Joe Nardella.
DG: Joe Nardella and it’s not particularly close.