Dueling in Denver: MLL Championship Weekend Preview


John Grant Jr. and the Denver Outlaws will battle the Boston Cannons on Friday night in the MLL semifinals.

The 2019 Major League Lacrosse playoff field was set in Week 14 of the regular season when the Chesapeake Bayhawks, Denver Outlaws, Boston Cannons and Atlanta Blaze all clinched a spot in the postseason on the same day.

It’s a prestigious field. You have the defending champion Denver Outlaws, who have won three of the past five championships and have played in the most playoff games in league history. The Chesapeake Bayhawks have won more championships than any other team (five). The Boston Cannons are an original MLL team that won the 2011 championship.

The Atlanta Blaze, the fourth seed in the playoffs, don’t have the same pedigree their competition has, but that doesn’t mean they should be counted out.

“I don’t know the history of what you’ve done as an organization matters in the MLL,” Blaze general manager Spencer Ford said. “One could say the Atlanta Blaze have never been there, and the Cannons haven’t been there in a long time. I don’t think it comes to play with us. There’s injuries. There’s runs. It’s just a matter of preparation, understanding our scout, understanding what we’re going to accomplish as a group, and standing by one another.”





Long-term history may show some differences between the four MLL playoff teams, but their results in the 2019 regular season make it difficult to differentiate between the four.

The first seed of the playoffs wasn’t decided until the final week of the regular season, after the Bayhawks defeated the Denver Outlaws for the second consecutive week. 

While Chesapeake finished a game ahead of the Outlaws and Cannons in the standings and two games ahead of Blaze, being the first seed hasn’t meant much in recent years.

Only one team, the New York Lizards in 2015, has won the championship as the top seed in the past seven seasons. The most notorious example of a top seed not winning the championship was in 2013, when the Denver Outlaws came into the playoffs with an undefeated record but they lost to the Charlotte Hounds in the semifinals.

“It’s one game, so all bets are off,” Denver faceoff specialist Max Adler said. “Then how competitive it is, anyone can beat any team. Last year, we were the fourth seed. Dallas ran away with it last season; they had two losses or something like that and smoked New York in the semis. Then we upset them. The year we were undefeated, we lost in the first round. You take it a game at a time because of how ultra-competitive it is.”

In the past few seasons, playoff teams played each other no more than twice in a season. The changes Major League Lacrosse underwent prior to the season made teams much more familiar with each other. 

Thanks to six teams and a 16-game schedule, Atlanta played Denver and Chesapeake three times and Boston four times.

Boston played their semifinal opponent, Denver, three times during the season.

“We know our opponent,” Cannons head coach Sean Quirk said. “They know us. Everything is out the window. Records are out the window. Past games are out the window. It’s just going out there and competing for 60 minutes. We’ve been preaching to our guys to play like it’s going to be your last game.”

Top-seeded Chesapeake won the season series against Denver, 3-1, but they did get swept by the Boston Cannons in two games.

Boston, on the other hand, tied the season series with Atlanta, who wasn’t as successful against the Outlaws, losing two of three to Denver.

With the four teams so close, what is it going to take to come away from the weekend with a championship?

”It’s going to be the group that is together, playing high-level defense, winning face-offs, and getting high-level goalie play,” Ford said.

“I’m not going to tell you it’s like every other game,” Denver defender Finn Sullivan added. “The playoffs are different. They’re more physical and violent. We understand we need to take our games to another level. It’s finding that next gear.”

Of the 17 games played between the four playoff teams, eight were decided by one goal.

“Anybody can win this thing,” Bayhawks coach Dave Cottle said. “It’s whoever plays better this weekend. Hopefully you have your guys ready to play the best lacrosse they’ve played. It may sound simplistic, but it’s honest.”

Cottle knows a thing or two about winning in the MLL playoffs.

In the six seasons Cottle has been the coach of the Chesapeake Bayhawks, he has helped lead the team to the playoffs four times. He was the coach when the team won back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013, the last MLL team to win consecutive championships, and one of only two teams in league history to do so.

The Outlaws have a chance to repeat as champions in 2019, and Cottle said they had as good a shot as anybody.

“Denver is really good,” he said. “They’re the team. They have homefield advantage, and they probably have the best faceoff guy and best goalie. Those are two things that are hard to beat. Going into this, if I was Denver, I’d feel good about my chances.”

Just because he felt they should feel good, however, doesn’t mean the other teams shouldn’t.

“As Bayhawks, we feel good about our chances,” Cottle said. “It’s in our grasp. If we play great, we have a chance, and I think every team feels that.”

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