EVERETT — After a week of build-up, the West Division champion Washington Stealth and the East champion Rochester Knighthawks meet at 4 p.m. today for the National Lacrosse League title.
The teams faced off twice in the regular season, with each winning on its home floor.
In the championship it is the Stealth who have the home-field advantage — well, sort of.
Washington earned the home game by virtue of its 9-7 regular-season record (the Knighthawks were 8-8). The Stealth, however, were forced to move the game 80 miles north to Langley, British Columbia, because of a scheduling conflict at Comcast Arena in Everett. The game will be played at the 5,200-seat Langley Events Centre.
Despite not playing on their normal home floor, the Stealth expect plenty of their fans to be in attendance.
“I would bet that we have 90 percent of the fans in the building come Saturday,” Stealth assistant coach Jason Bloom said, “and that is just going to be a huge advantage for us.”
The championship game features two of the best goaltenders in the NLL, Rochester’s Matt Vinc and Washington’s Tyler Richards. Vinc won the 2013 NLL Goaltender of the Year award and finished first in the league in goals against (10.17) and save percentage (.803). He broke his own NLL single-season record for saves in a season with 662.
Richards’ regular-season save percentage was .795, second behind Vinc, and he finished fourth in the league in saves with 579.
“Can one out-perform the other? Maybe,” Stealth head coach Chris Hall said. “I think the way to look at it is both teams have a great goaltender.”
Richards has been a key piece of the puzzle that helped the Stealth rebound from a 4-12 season a year ago to tie Calgary and Edmonton for the second-best record in the league.
But Hall doesn’t want his team to rely on Richards to deliver a championship.
“Are you relying on your goaltender before the start of a game to carry you to victory? No,” Hall said. “We are relying on 20 guys to carry us to victory and we hope that every one of them has the best game of their career. Tyler is one part of that. Having said that, Tyler has played a huge role in our success to date and obviously we all expect that he is going to rise to the occasion one more time.”
Not only does each team have a top-notch goalie, but both emphasize defense. Rochester held opponents to the fewest goals in the regular season. Washington finished fourth in the same category and its defense is anchored by a mix of skilled veterans and physical rookies.
The quality of the defense and goaltending is a perfect recipe for a close, low-scoring contest, but Hall says anything can happen in this league.
“You would think (it would be low-scoring), but I’ve seen that go down the tubes before,” Hall said. “Is that possible here? It is, knowing the strength of the defenses and the strength of both goaltenders, but I’ve also seen games where you had marquee goaltenders and it turned into some run-and-gun shootout. Odds are the under is the way to go, but I’ve seen the over happen, too.”
One thing Hall does expect: a game that goes down to the wire.
“I would expect a close game because neither team is going to give any quarter and goals are probably going to be hard to come by,” he said. “I think it is a good matchup of two pretty strong lacrosse teams and, of course, they are the defending champs. They’ve got their superstars, as do we. It matches up to be a pretty good lacrosse game.”
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.