Close to 140 of the 160 players who will pull on pads in Toronto, Calgary, Rochester and Denver this weekend learned to play box lacrosse while growing up in Canada.
Eight of the nine teams made the playoffs and, with a win-or-you’re-out format now kicking in, the captain of the one team that wins its next three games will be handed the Champion’s Cup. All eight captains are from Canada.
In the East Division, the Philadelphia Wings (7-9) are at the Rochester Knighthawks (7-9) on Friday and the Buffalo Bandits (7-9) are at the Toronto Rock (9-7) on Saturday (TSN, 7 p.m.).
In the West Division on Saturday, it’s the Edmonton Rush (6-10) at the Calgary Roughnecks (12-4) and the Minnesota Swarm (9-7) at the Colorado Mammoth (11-5).
Toronto won the title last spring. There has not been a repeat champion since 2003.
The Rock finished their schedule by winning five of six after installing Nick Rose of Orangeville, Ont., as No. 1 goalie. Rose’s main worry will be John Tavares, the 43-year-old Mississauga, Ont., math teacher who was second in the league this season with 41 goals including a league-high 21 on power plays.
"Buffalo’s offence revolves around arguably the most opportunistic player in NLL history in John Tavares," said Rock defenceman Pat Merrill. "Our goal as a defence, by playing with a lot of speed and aggression, is to make him have to think and play fast.
"We need to respect his abilities but not too much because we don’t want to give him the time and space to make plays."
Buffalo won the first two regular-season meetings and Toronto took the third. Expect a rough rumble. Google "Rock Bandits brawl" for background.
"Buffalo-Toronto games always bring out emotional play from both teams," said Merrill, who is athletic director at The Hill Academy north of Toronto. "We have to play with discipline and not give their power play a chance to determine the outcome of this game."
The Philadelphia-Rochester showdown appears on paper to be a gimme for the Knighthawks because they are 3-0 versus the Wings this year, and Philadelphia is on a five-game losing streak. But wait a minute, says Hawks goalie Matt Vinc, a high school phys-ed teacher in St. Catharines, Ont.
"This is going to be a difficult game for us," said Vinc. "We have had success against them this season but by no means were they easy games for us.
"They have some of the best players on offence in the league on their team and have a goalie who can steal games. There is a lot of parody in the league this year so anyone has a shot at the title. I know Philly will be ready to battle and the fans can expect a great game."
Dan Dawson is a key cog in the Wings offence. The team became complacent after getting an early ticket to the playoffs, he says when asked about the five-game skid.
"This playoff game represents kind of a rebirth for us," says the Brampton, Ont., firefighter. "The last five games have been really tough but the playoffs are a new season. It’s a one-game shot, a new opportunity, and we’re going to try and make the most of it."
In the West, Calgary won seven of its last eight to sew up the No.1 overall seed and then was the only team to have last weekend off. The Roughnecks swept Edmonton 4-0 this year and are bent on avenging a 2010 playoff loss to the Rush that robbed the 2009 champs of the chance for a championship repeat.
No. 1 goalie Mike Poulin of Kitchener, Ont., missed the last two games with a tender ankle but will be in uniform Saturday, coach Dave Pym said Wednesday. Edmonton’s Aaron Bold of Victoria has been just as good as Poulin, and the Rush don’t sound the least bit intimidated.
"Having gone winless all year against Calgary, we are still very confident," said Rush defenceman Brett Mydske of New Westminster, B.C. "If we stick to the game plan and play a full 60 minutes, we will have a positive outcome."
The Roughnecks are well aware of how intent the Rush will be to pull off an upset.
"Something that makes them dangerous is that they are incredibly well-coached,'' Calgary faceoff ace Geoff Snider said of the Rush. "They are an athletic group with a solid defence and strong goaltending. We'll have to play our best game or we'll have our hands full.''
Meanwhile, Minnesota goes to Denver on a four-game winning streak including a schedule-ending 16-13 home win over Colorado.
"They’re a good team," said Mammoth star John Grant Jr. "We’re going to have our hands full."
Grant, 37, from Peterborough, Ont., just set a single-season points record with 116, eclipsing the 115 by Tavares in 2001.
Colorado captain Gavin Prout missed the last two games with a leg injury but will play Saturday.
"Minnesota is on a run right now," said Prout, who works for a benefits firm in downtown Toronto. "They are a very good team with a lot of weapons that we must consider. We, however, have just as many weapons when we are healthy, which we plan on being this weekend.
"We cannot let our emotions run our play. We have to stay on an even keel throughout the game regardless of the score. If we stick to our game plan and execute it well, we will be successful and will be moving on to the next round."