After one of the closest seasons in Major League Lacrosse history, the Ohio Machine are taking on the Denver Outlaws for the Steinfeld Trophy. What makes this past season stand out is that seven of nine teams ended up tied for first place. The MLL usually gets an idea of who is going to have a successful season after the fourth week of the season and the separation occurs at the All Star break and there are one or two bubble teams with a chance to make the playoffs.
With league expansion to nine teams and increased parity, there were seven teams with a chance to make the playoffs. Ohio needed depth to progress past the first round and they traded for John Grant Jr. at the deadline who promptly had back to back 10 point games. Denver needed to solve the question of who would replace Jesse Schwartzman in goal and eventually settled on Jack Kelly from Brown who won 6 games for the Outlaws. Both teams found answers and survived to make it the championship.
Starting from the goal and working out, Ohio has the edge in the category even though Jack Kelly has a slightly higher save percentage than Scott Rodgers. The Big Rig was traded to Atlanta so that the Machine could get Dominque Alexander back from the Blaze and then reacquired by the Machine when Brian Phipps was traded to Chesapeake. Rodgers responded by having an incredible year and winning MVP at the All Star game. Kelly was drafted out of Brown and was used to seeing a high volume of shots. He took the MLL like a duck to water, winning six games to one loss and posting the second highest save percentage. Both goalies have similar stats, Rodgers has something to prove and has played his best with a chip on his shoulder. Kelly is riding a hot streak, but Rodgers has the edge in experience and wants to prove to his detractors that he has earned a seat at the table.
The defense playing in front of Rodgers is leading the league in penalty killing percentage in the regular season while Denver is near the bottom of the league. Both teams have been labeled as defenses that lack star power. Despite this criticism, Ohio placed Brian Karalunas and Jackson Place while Denver landed Matt Bocklett and Mike Simon on the All Star rosters. Ohio once again has an edge here as well not just because of their man down play, but because their unit has played together longer while Denver has more youth at close defense. The Outlaws have given up more two point goals than the Machine by 2 to 1. Look for the Machine to keep the Machine attack from running amok like they did against New York.
At the X, Denver is posting a higher winning percentage than Ohio in the regular season, but the Machine’s Greg Puskuldjian is on tear in the playoffs. He is a seasoned MLL player and All Star. Look for him to grind it out and feed the potent Ohio offense. It will not be a blow out, but Denver showed that they can be dominated at the X by Greg Gurenlian. Is Puskuldjian the next Beast? Only time will tell, but if Denver struggles at the X he will look like a second coming of Gurenlian and the Machine offense will roll.
Both offenses are potent and can put points on the board and average about 12 points per game. Denver and Ohio have the same number of two point goals with seven apiece while the Machine have a more efficient man up unit. There is talent on both attack and midfield offensively, but Ohio traded for John Grant Jr, to bring his playoff and championship experience to the Machine. His run with the Machine has included two 10 point games. Despite the talent and firepower of the Outlaws, the Machine are looking to take their seat at the championship table and prove that they belong among the top MLL teams. As is always the case with the MLL, nothing is ever guaranteed and the Outlaws are a talented team that has all the tools to win another championship.
Then again, that is why the game is played and we love to watch it.