By Peter Schwartz
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They’ve already clinched a berth in the Major League Lacrosse playoffs, but the New York Lizards still have a chance to host a postseason game if things go their way on Saturday.
There are a number of different scenarios as the MLL heads into the final week of the regular season, but the only thing that is certain for the Lizards is that they will be on the road for round one of the playoffs if they lose to the Denver Outlaws in their 5: 30 p.m. regular-season finale at Hofstra University’s Shuart Stadium.
While it would be nice to be home for the opening round of the playoffs, the focus is clearly on finishing the regular season strong with a win on Saturday.
“I think the biggest thing for us right now is not worrying about who we’re playing in two weeks,” said head coach Joe Spallina.
That contest on August 16 could very well be a rematch with Denver, either at Hofstra or at Sports Authority Field at Mile High where the Outlaws beat the Lizards 16-11 back on June 14.
Even a win over Denver this Saturday might not be enough for the Lizards (8-5) to stay home next week, but there are two ways for them to play one more game in front of their home fans.
MLL STANDINGS (The top four teams make the playoffs)
*NY Lizards 8-5
*clinched playoff spot; x-eliminated from playoff contention
If Rochester beats Boston, the Lizards can nail down the second seed if they can beat Denver by at least five goals. The Lizards and Outlaws would be tied at 9-5, but New York would finish second thanks to a goal-differential tiebreaker.
Also, if Rochester loses and the Lizards beat Denver by 11 or more goals, then all three would be tied at 9-5 and the Lizards would actually grab the No. 1 overall seed in the MLL thanks to a three team tiebreaker.
But the Lizards’ approach is not to win by five or 11 goals. Their first priority is to simply win the game.
“You can’t go into a game thinking you need to win by a certain amount, because you won’t play like you normally would,” said attackman Rob Pannell, the Lizards’ leading scorer with 51 points. “You go into every game with the goal of winning, and that if the team plays like they are capable of, then you will put yourself in a good position to do just that.”
If the Lizards can control the game and get out to a lead, they could take advantage of the MLL’s two-point goal to help stretch their advantage. A shot from outside the arc is worth two points, so that is something that could come into play on Saturday.
However, the two-point goal has not been a big weapon for the Lizards this season, as they have scored just six from outside the arc in 13 games.
Regardless of whether or not the Lizards get a home playoff game, there’s no denying that they are the hottest team in MLL heading into the postseason. They’ve won five of their last six games after struggling earlier in the season.
What’s been the reason for the turnaround?
“Consistency,” said Pannell. “I think for the most part we have played a consistent brand of lacrosse and have had a consistent lineup, with guys finally developing that chemistry that you focus on developing all season.”
Another factor contributing to the Lizards’ surge has been the play of rookie defenseman Joe Fletcher. The former Loyola star picked up MLL Defensive Player of the Week honors for the second time this season after a terrific performance last week in Charlotte. He held Hounds star Ryan Young off the score sheet for the first time in 30 games and notched his first career MLL goal.
“I’m not sure there’s been a player that’s had a bigger impact on our lineup than Fletcher,” said Spallina. “He’s been an absolute eraser and a top defender in the league already.”
Fletcher and the Lizards are hoping to erase three more opponents: Denver this week and then two more teams in the playoffs.
Home playoff game or not, the Lizards are in the tournament and have their eyes set on the franchise’s third MLL title and first since 2003.
“I think right now we are confident in our team’s abilities, and know that if we play the way we know we can, then we put (ourselves) in a great position to win every time we step on the field,” said Pannell. “I think we are ready for what comes next, and that’s the postseason.”
The Lizards have already punched their ticket to the playoffs. The only question is if they will open the postseason at home or on the road in Rochester or Denver.
When you think about the way they’ve been playing over the last six weeks, it doesn’t matter where the game is. The Lizards have just about as good a chance as any team of making it to Atlanta for the MLL Championship Game on August 23.
But first things first, and that’s the regular-season finale against Denver.
“We know what we have to do and we just need to win,” said Spallina.
A win would complete a 9-5 regular season. A win by five goals or more could possibly mean staying home next week.
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