DENVER — Washington Stealth forward Cliff Smith is making his best case for the “Big Three” to become the “Big Four.”
Smith had a first-half hat trick for the second time in as many weeks and scored four goals and had three assists in the Stealth’s 17-13 victory over Colorado on Saturday.
The Stealth’s Big Three of Lewis Ratcliff, Athan Iannucci and Rhys Duch have scored their share of goals so far this season, but after two games, it is Smith who leads the team in points and goals.
“I think a lot of it is I am maybe knocking down shots I wasn’t before,” Smith said. “And one thing too is that when guys like Lewis are playing so well they get a lot of the attention and I kind of get the benefits of them keying on a few other guys too.”
But if other teams are keying in on Ratcliff, it’s hard to tell. He had a hat trick of his own in Saturday’s victory and has five goals on the season. In fact, Ratcliff was one of four Stealth players to record hat tricks against the Mammoth, joining Smith, Duch and Dean Hill, who had a natural hat trick scoring the first three goals of the third period.
“It makes everyone’s life a whole lot easier when (the opponent) doesn’t know who to check,” Ratcliff said. “If we keep this up we are going to be a tough offense to stop.”
After a poor start and a 4-12 finish to the 2012 season, the Stealth are off to a 2-0 start in 2013 with victories over the defending NLL champion Rochester Knighthawks and the Mammoth, who held the league’s best record for much of last season before faltering late and losing in the first round of the playoffs to Minnesota.
“It’s still early,” Stealth head coach Chris Hall said. “But we are back in a sense that we know that we are certainly a contender in here. We know that we’ve still got a long way to go and we still have things to improve on, but certainly we know through our first few games that we are a different team than we were last year.”
Washington earned its second win of the season by using several streaks of unanswered goals that made Colorado have to fight from behind all night. Tied 2-2 in the first quarter, the Stealth scored four straight to extend to a 6-2 lead. After Colorado came back to tie the game at six, the Stealth scored four straight again to open up a 10-6 lead. The Mammoth scored the final two goals of the first half to get within two at 10-8, but it was the third quarter run that changed everything.
The Stealth opened the second half with three goals from Hill followed by a Ratcliff goal to open up a 14-8 lead. Duch added a power-play goal and Smith scored from about 60 feet away as time expired in the third quarter to give Washington a 16-8 lead heading into the final stanza.
“I think we just shot the ball well and kept taking advantage of our possessions,” Hall said. “The offense seems to be developing some chemistry and sharing the ball.”
As important as the Stealth’s offense was throughout the game, Washington’s defense, especially in the third quarter when it shut out Colorado, was just as important.
And the Stealth did it with backup goalkeeper Nick Patterson, who got the start for Tyler Richards. Hall said he saw this game as an opportunity to give his new backup, a former all-star with Minnesota, some work.
“It’s early in the season and we just thought Nick hadn’t played last year and it’s an opportunity for us to get him in there,” Hall said. “I think it’s always important to know that you have two goalies you can always rely on. I think early in the season to give your so-called backup a start so he can get comfortable and build some confidence in himself and we felt confidence knowing that he can play well.”
Aside from shutting out the Mammoth in the third quarter, Patterson finished the game with 42 saves.
The Mammoth made one final effort to come back in the fourth, taking advantage of a five-minute major-penalty on Tim Henderson for elbowing John Gallant. With three power-play goals the Mammoth cut the Stealth’s lead to 16-12, but after the penalty ended, Matt Beers ended the streak of four straight goals by Colorado that all but dashed the Mammoth’s hopes of a comeback.
Stealth 17, Mammoth 13
1st Quarter — Scoring: WAS — Ratcliff Goal (PP) (Duch, Iannucci) 0:33; COL — McBride Goal (Jones) 1:59; WAS — Smith Goal (Buchanan, Iannucci) 4:03; COL — Lincoln Goal (Prout, Grant Jr.) 4:40; WAS — Duch Goal (Beers, Moleski) 6:03; WAS — Smith Goal (Iannucci, Henderson) 6:47; WAS — Garrison Goal 7:43; WAS — Duch Goal 8:17; COL — Grant Jr. Goal (Morgan, Roik) 8:54; COL — Jones Goal (Pollock, Grant Jr.) 10:21; COL — Prout Goal (Roik) 12:20. Penalties: Koneczny, COL (Slashing, Minor, 2 min) 0:00.
2nd Quarter — Scoring: COL — Pollock Goal (SH) (Lincoln) 3:15; WAS — Bucktooth Goal (Smith) 5:23; WAS — Ratcliff Goal (PP) (Bucktooth, Iannucci) 5:47; WAS — Buchanan Goal 6:50; WAS — Smith Goal (Bucktooth) 7:08; COL — Grant Jr. Goal (Koneczny) 9:23; COL — Jones Goal (Pollock) 14:17. Penalties: Pychel, WAS (Roughing, Minor, 2 min) 0:00; Morgan, COL (Illegal Cross Checking, Minor, 2 min) 1:39; Coates, COL (Tripping, Minor, 2 min) 5:41; Grimes, WAS (Fighting, Major, 5 min) 10:28; Grimes, WAS (Instigator, Minor, 2 min) 10:28; Grimes, WAS (Game Misconduct, 10 min) 10:28; Prout, COL (Goaltender Interference, Minor, 2 min) 10:28; Prout, COL (Fighting, Major, 5 min) 10:28.
3rd Quarter — Scoring: WAS — Hill Goal (Buchanan, Iannucci) 0:58; WAS — Hill Goal (Smith, Bucktooth) 5:04; WAS — Hill Goal 8:23; WAS — Ratcliff Goal (Buchanan) 9:05; WAS — Duch Goal (PP) (Ratcliff, Hill) 12:56; WAS — Smith Goal (Buchanan, Moleski) 14:59. Penalties: Patterson, WAS (Slashing, Minor, 2 min) 9:53; Allen, COL (Illegal Cross Checking, Minor, 2 min) 12:43.
4th Quarter — Scoring: COL — MacLeod Goal (Grant Jr., Prout) 0:41; COL — Grant Jr. Goal (PP) (Lincoln, Jones) 3:30; COL — Lincoln Goal (PP) (Pollock, Prout) 4:21; COL — MacLeod Goal (PP) (Coates) 6:27; WAS — Beers Goal (Ratcliff, Smith) 7:44; COL — Morgan Goal (Prout, Jones) 9:56. Penalties: Henderson, WAS (Elbowing, Major, 5 min) 2:25; Koneczny, COL (Fighting, Major, 5 min) 14:49; Koneczny, COL (Game Misconduct, 10 min) 14:49; Pollock, COL (Instigator, Minor, 2 min) 14:49; Pollock, COL (Fighting, Major, 5 min) 14:49; Pollock, COL (Game Misconduct, 10 min) 14:49; Allen, COL (Fighting, Major, 5 min) 14:57; Pychel, WAS (Fighting, Major, 5 min) 14:57.