Quarterfinals: Redwoods-Whipsnakes Preview
By Andrew Crane | Aug 20, 2021
The third and final matchup of the Premier Lacrosse League’s quarterfinal weekend in Salt Lake City features the Redwoods and the Whipsnakes, two teams that have met in the championship and semifinals the past two seasons, respectively. For the first time since 2019, the Whipsnakes will play in the first round of playoff games — a result of injuries and depleted depth sinking them in the standings mid-season.
While the Redwoods clinched the No. 4 seed and defeated Chaos, 10-9, in their final regular season game behind Ryder Garnsey’s game-winning goal, they’ll enter the matchup shorthanded. TD Ierlan, tied for the highest faceoff percentage in the league, left last Friday’s game early and is ruled out, while Sergio Perkovic has been added to the PUP list.
That’s forced Redwoods head coach Nat St. Laurent to patch his lineup more for the weekend than he’d like, trying to assemble a group strong enough to knock off the two-time PLL champions and advance to face the No. 1-seed Waterdogs — and hope that those injured players could return for that game.
“I'm not sure anybody loves to draw the 'Whips or the 'Woods in the first round,” St. Laurent said, “and luck has it that we drew each other.”
All-time series: 5-2 Whipsnakes
After dropping their first meeting against the Redwoods this season, the Whipsnakes rebounded to win, 14-12, last weekend in Albany. The Redwoods won just 3-of-11 faceoffs that Ierlan wasn’t a part of when he left injured in the third quarter, and Matt Rambo and Zed Williams combined for nine goals in their first game paired together since June 25 against the Atlas due to injuries. Myles Jones led the Redwoods with seven points on four goals and three assists.
Last-minute faceoff addition
After Ierlan’s injury, St. Laurent’s return trip from Albany turned into a 48-hour scramble to beat the Season Waiver Wire deadline. First there was the game on Sunday, and the Redwoods won that. But in between those games, and in the airport while traveling, St. Laurent called the league and researched potential faceoff specialist replacements. He even texted Greg Gurenlian, who played for the Redwoods in 2019, to see if he’d come out of retirement, something that’s been an “ongoing conversation,” he said.
The Redwoods were left with just Charlie Leonard on their roster, the rookie from Notre Dame who made his PLL debut on Sunday and won 28% of faceoffs against Chaos. And at the top of his list sat Drew Simoneau, the former Division-III All-American who became an All-Star at the pro level. This year, he bounced around between the Cannons and Whipsnakes, but won 13-of-29 faceoffs against Joe Nardella on June 12 — tied for the most faceoffs that Nardella has lost in a single game this season.
“I think it just made sense for us to get him to have that veteran,” St. Laurent said.
Nardella finished third in the PLL during the regular season with 157 faceoff wins, trailing only Ierlan and Trevor Baptiste, but the other part of the challenge for Simoneau comes against the Whipsnakes’ wings on the faceoff unit. A portion of that success can be attributed to Matt Abbott, head coach Jim Stagnitta said last week, the nine-time All-Star who the Whipsnakes claimed back in March. Defensively, he’s worked on becoming less of a one-hand checker and playing more physical, but on faceoffs, he’s silently helped Anchor a unit headlined by Nardella.
All of those factors sparked St. Laurent’s decision to pivot away from his rookie and toward Simoneau, someone more experienced. He said that Leonard “did great” in his first professional game, but he also acknowledged that winning around 30% of faceoffs against Nardella won’t key a victory over the Whipsnakes. Ierlan could return for future games if the Redwoods win and make a run, but until then, to bridge the gap and provide some insights to the Redwoods’ young faceoff unit along the way, Simoneau will be at the forefront.
Special teams advantage
Power play, penalty kills and faceoffs were three areas — all under the general umbrella of special teams — that St. Laurent identified as needing improvement as soon as the Redwoods lost to the Whipsnakes and left the bubble last year. And those developments have transitioned into the best power play (59%) and penalty kill (81%) percentages in the league, the opposite end of the special teams scale than they were last season.
The fix defensively was easy, and didn’t involve any transactions: The Redwoods just “simplified it,” St. Laurent said, cutting down on the voices and opinions trying to get everyone on the same page. Ierlan solved the faceoff unit’s woes. And the addition of Rob Pannell, acquired from the Atlas in the offseason, along with the return of Jules Heningburg, helped get “those guys to mesh together on man-up.”
Player to watch: Matt Kavanagh
The Redwoods attackman leads all active players with 46 playoff points across his career, and he’s recorded at least one point in all nine of their games this season — though the season-finale against Chaos was the only game he didn’t score a goal. His role without Perkovic could be expanded, especially if the Redwoods lean on their attack unit more, and they’ll also need to fill Perkovic’s spot on the man-up unit.
Stat to know — 36, 24
Pannell’s 44 assist opportunities this season sit second in the PLL behind Grant Ament, who has 54, and the Redwoods are finishing those potential assists at a 36% clip. The Whipsnakes’ leader, by comparison, is Brad Smith with 41 assist opportunities, but those have only turned into goals 24% of the time. Pannell has two second assists on five tries while Smith has zero on six possible attempts, too.