By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
EVERETT — The Washington Stealth come into tonight’s National Lacrosse League game against the Minnesota Swarm as winners of three straight games.
A fourth would give them a spot in the postseason.
After finishing 4-12 in 2012 and missing the playoffs, the Stealth have turned things around in 2013. Their 7-4 record has them in first place in the NLL’s West Division and they control their own destiny when it comes to home-field advantage in the divisional playoffs.
“Obviously it would be great to get a playoff position sealed up this weekend,” Stealth head coach Chris Hall said. “It’s obviously one of the first goals on the list as you start the season, so to be able to be in a position to accomplish it in the 12th game is obviously a spot we want to be in and obviously we are going to do everything we can to accomplish that feat.”
The Stealth and Swarm split their first two meetings this season, with each team winning on its home floor. Minnesota defeated the Stealth 15-14 in late January and the Stealth earned an 11-8 decision over Minnesota two weeks ago.
“We know Minnesota is a tough opponent and it’s a divisional game and the rubber-match of a three-game series to determine tie-breakers if we get down that road,” Hall said. “I’m expecting another tough battle.”
The Stealth already have won the season series against division foe Colorado and lead the series against Calgary 1-0. A win over Minnesota would lock up the season advantage over a second divisional opponent with just four games remaining in the season.
The biggest difference in the two earlier games was the play of Stealth goalkeeper Tyler Richards. Richards picked up the loss in the first meeting, giving up 15 goals on 52 shots, but in recent weeks he has been the most consistent goalie in the league. He saved 43 of 51 shots in the March 3 victory over Minnesota and last week saved 42 of 52 shots in a road win over Philadelphia. The performance earned Richards the NLL’s Defensive Player of the Week award.
Minnesota forward Jay Card said Richards was the biggest difference in the second game.
“I think we just ran into a hot goalie,” Card said. “T-Rich is one of the best goalies in the league. You’ve got to shoot (well) to score on him. And if he gets hot, it’s going to be tough to score on him.”
The Stealth also have benefited from the emergence of a consistent offensive attack. Forward Athan Iannucci scored four goals in each of the first two games of the three-game winning streak, and forward Lewis Ratcliff scored four in last week’s victory over Philadelphia, topping 400 goals for his NLL career in the process.
“We are all talking and communicating a lot better,” Iannucci said. “We are moving the ball and we are moving our feet. I think we are all just kind of working together. We’ve had the benefit of having a preseason and not having guys come in, like myself and (Brett) Bucktooth part way through (last) season. That’s probably one of the biggest contributors to our success right now.”
While locking up a playoff spot is certainly on the minds of the Stealth players and coaching staff, there are loftier goals on the horizon. Home-field advantage would bolster the Stealth’s chances of returning to the NLL championship game, which they reached in 2010 and 2011. They haven’t hosted a playoff game since their first season in Everett in 2010.
“It’s nice to be able to seal up a spot so early, but I don’t think any of us our satisfied with only that,” Iannucci said. “We want to try to climb the ranks as much as possible and try to seal up home floor.”
The NLL announced Friday that it’s expanding the regular season from 16 to 18 games, starting next season. The current 16-game schedule has been in place since 2002. The 2014 schedule is due to be released in September.
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at email@example.com.