September 19, 2012

Second-half swoon doomed Cannons in semis

The Cannons' Jack Reid walks off the field after the disappointing loss to the Bayhawks- in the semifinals at Harvard Stadium. (photo: Getty Images)

Boston Cannons first-year coach Steve Duffy admitted when it was over that he’d seen previously what he saw in the second half of his team’s Major League Lacrosse semifinals loss before this season.

He thought the squad had put the lapses in focus and execution that contributed to a 2-5 stretch at midseason behind it, winning three consecutive games to rally into the MLL playoffs as the third seed with a 9-5 record overall.

Yet, despite a 5-1 lead early against the Chesapeake Bayhawks in the Aug. 25 semifinal on the Harvard Stadium turf, and a tie game early in the second half, the troubles Duffy hoped had been put to rest in June and July came back to haunt the team in a 16-10 loss that ended Boston’s championship reign.

“Turnovers, outside distractions, letting a couple of referee calls get under our skin and forgetting about things we need to do,” Duffy said. “That’s something we have to block out. We have to be more mentally tough than that.”

The Bayhawks’ strategy was clear: go after the Cannons’ top offensive threats physically and aggressively, trying to keep them out of the scoring column. It was a strategy that worked with stunning, alarming success.

Paul Rabil, the MLL Offensive Player of the Year who set the single-season scoring record with 72 points in the regular season, was held to two assists and zero goals on six shots. Ryan Boyle, the league’s all-time assist leader and 2012 assist champion with 39, was held scoreless. Matt Poskay, the MLL goals leader this year with 38 — and the single-season record holder with 45 in 2010 — found the net just once.

For Rabil, the face of the franchise and widely considered the most talented and recognizable player in the world, it was another in a series of quiet postseason efforts. He was held scoreless on seven shots in the 2010 semifinals against Chesapeake, totaled one goal and four assists on 14 shots in the two-game 2011 title run, and was again off the mark in this year’s semifinal against a chippy defense seemingly designed to keep him uncomfortable at all times.

“I catch some heat every now and then for playoff performances,” Rabil said. “But, really, the guys are so competitive in this league, and if the coaches are going to extend out on me, playoffs is all about winning and we have to pick and choose matchups. I think we did that all game. Mike Stone (three goals, two assists) was dodging great, and so was Kevin Buchanan (two goals, assist) on the short (stick defender), so my role was to start the possession off ball and then set up my teammates when I got it.”

“They’re all geared up for him,” Duffy said. “Every team gets up for Paul Rabil. He’s not the guy who is going to get it done for us alone. We can’t just watch Paul play. Other guys are going to have to step up and play. We were able to get it done in the first half (in the semifinal). In the second half, we didn’t.”

While it took until the third quarter for the Bayhawks to seize control of the game, the turning point happened during what may have been a five-point swing in the second quarter. Up 7-5, the Cannons forced a turnover on a clearing pass with just over five minutes left in the half, but a one-minute, illegal body check penalty on Rabil gave possession back to Chesapeake instead of keeping it with Boston in the offensive zone. Twenty-four seconds later, Kyle Dixon scored a two-point goal on the man-advantage to tie the game. Forty-eight seconds after that, Dixon lofted a long shot from way outside the two-point arc that somehow found its way past Cannons goalie Jordan Burke for a 9-7 Chesapeake lead.

Boston came back to tie it on a goal from defender Kyle Sweeney late in the second quarter, and one from Stone midway through the third, but the Cannons never regained the momentum they had when the offense was finding holes and an active defense was forcing mistakes, before the shaky play surrendered back-to-back two-pointers.

“A couple of two-balls there got them back into the game,” Buchanan said. “Then we got a little tight. We tried to go too much individually. We weren’t leaning on each other to move the ball and share it.
“It’s tough when you’re battling, and up four, five goals, then two shots and you’re even. It’s tough to grasp mentally.”

It was that mental part of the game that was tough for Duffy to see unravel so quickly and completely in the second half. A team of veterans — mostly champions from last summer — let frustrations with the Bayhawks defense, lack of calls on some perceived fouls, and an array of splendid saves from former teammate Kip Turner take them out of their game. Chesapeake snapped up Turner with a pick it traded for in last year’s expansion draft after the Cannons left him unprotected.

“I get it every game,” Rabil said of the physical play. “I’m OK with that. I think people notice it a little more here because it’s the playoffs and eyes are on everything in the playoffs.

“They were just the more consistent team throughout the day. I say it was an odd feeling because we picked our matchups right. We got shots, lots of shots. But we missed the net, and Kip made some great saves.”

It all added up to a 7-0 run through the late stages of the third quarter and into the final seconds of the fourth that sent the Bayhawks — who won the franchise’s record fourth league title the next day in a 16-6 rout of the Denver Outlaws — to the championship game, and sent the Cannons trudging from their home field lamenting opportunities lost.

“It’s the heat of the moment, the heat of the game,” Duffy said. “Everyone wants to play hard. Those are the things we have to focus on in the future.”

This article originally appeared in the September-October 2012 issue of New England Lacrosse Journal.