The Minnesota Swarm have "traveled" east, and are set to face the Toronto Rock in round one of the NLL playoffs. A good number of the Swarm team lives in and around the Toronto area, so while they will be visitors at the Air Canada Centre, they won't be far from home.
The fact that the Swarm play the Rock in the opening round is a result of the league's "crossover" rule that ensures the top eight teams make the playoffs, not necessarily the top four from each division. As a result, the Swarm's path to a Champion's Cup start and ends in the East, and comes against a familiar opponent.
While the Rock, led by 100 point scorer Garrett Billings (30G, 70A) and goaltender Nick Rose (10-5, 10.61 GAA), finished with the best record in the NLL, the Swarm defeated them once, and had a lead going into the 4th quarter in the other match-up. Two 13-12 games, one for each, one won in the waning seconds, the other in overtime.
You think this game isn't going to be intense?
Welcome to the playoffs, NLL style. A one and done tournament that does not forgive an off night and forces nothing but the best from each and every player at every single moment. Mistakes will be punished quickly and remembered for an entire long offseason.
The Swarm will look to be the team they have shown they can be. Despite losing captain Andrew Suitor to a knee injury, the team has found its game, and has soldiered on with Callum Crawford (95 points - 32G, 63A) at the helm. Ryan Benesch has, of course, been fundamental to the team's success, as well, adding 84 points of his own (34G, 50A).
The Swarm's offense is tough to slow down, with so many threats that stopping one only opens up the others. Superb drafting and development, along with shrewd trades have built the Swarm into a young, fast, multi-pronged attack that also includes sure to be Transition Player of the Year Jordan MacIntosh, Shayne Jackson, and Keil Matisz. Pick any three you want to cover, and the other two can still take you down.
The transition game will be key, as is cliche in the NLL. The Swarm own one of the best transition teams in the league with MacIntosh, Tyler Hass, and Brock Sorenson leading the way. When the Swarm get their transition game going, teams fall back on their heels, ease up on offense, and are forced to keep a man back to try to keep MacIntosh and company in check.
The Swarm's defense has been, at times, inconsistent. Excellent one game, slow and dilapidated the next. They will need to pull things together in order to advance in the playoffs, and will face a strong challenge from this Rock team. One off night for the D, and it's over for the Swarm.
Behind the defense will be the two headed monster of Tyler Carlson, likely the goalie riding the hottest streak in the NLL right now, and Evan Kirk, a true #1 in his own right. Both goalies are capable of being a starter anywhere in the league, and both have had success this season. Coach Joe Sullivan almost certainly goes with Carlson this afternoon, however, as Carlson has been lights out for the final month of the season.
It's as big as they come, folks. Win and continue on, lose and go home. Every game in the NLL playoffs is a game 7. No margin for error, no tomorrow.
Game time is 2PM, and the game will be broadcast on FSN+. Make sure you tune in.