Who: Notre Dame vs. Denver
Where: Orange Coast College (Costa Mesa, California)
When: Saturday, March 8 - 1pm (PT)
Analysis: The Denver Pioneers were one of the feel-good stories of men's lacrosse last season. The Pioneers finished with a 14-5 record and were the Cinderella story of the NCAA tournament, upsetting North Carolina en route to the program's first ever Final Four appearance. Denver almost made it to the championship game, too. They pushed Syracuse to the brink, only losing by one goal.
Denver's strength was very clear when you watched them play. They loved to score. A lot. Led by attackman Wesley Berg, the Pioneers only scored less than 10 goals in only two of their 19 games last season (they scored 9 and 8 goals respectively). They moved the ball well on offense and it showed on the scoreboard.
This season, Denver has moved from the ECAC to the new-look Big East but have run into problems that teams with their style of play routinely run into.
While scoring at will just like last year, the Pioneers haven't been able to stop teams defensively. Outside of their 14-3 win over Canisus, they gave up 8 and 9 goals in their wins over Air Force and Marist, but gave up 12 and 14 goals in their losses to Penn and Duke. Clearly, the team is a little vulnerable on defense.
On offense, Wesley Berg (13g 2a) leads an attack unit that ranks amongst the best in the country. He is joined by Jack Bobzien (15g 7a) and Zach Miller (12g 4a). As you can see, those three alone have combined for almost 64% of the Pioneers' total offense. Denver's midfield is led by Erik Adamson (7g 3a) and Jeremy Noble (3g 9a), who are also offense-minded players. Noble joins Berg on this year's Tewaaraton Award Watch List, too.
As stated earlier, there are big question marks regarding the Pioneers defense and goalie. Defensively, Denver has been starting Christian Burgdorf, Carson Cannon and as of late, Teddy MacKenzie. They're a solid unit, but are a little slow on defensive slides and commit way too many penalties. The trio has combined for a pretty staggering 13 penalties totaling 8 minutes. Just as a reference, Notre Dame's entire team has combined for 13 penalties.
In net, Coach Tierney has a little bit of a goalie controversy, much like Corrigan and the Irish. Denver has six goalies on their roster and all six have seen action this season, but only two have seen most of the work. Jamie Faus has started all of the Pioneers' away games, going 1-2 while Ryan LaPlante has started Denver's two home games. However, Denver has typically switched goalies at halftime, so don't be surprised if the Irish see both Faus and LaPlante. My guess is that LaPlante, who came on in relief in Denver's most recent game (loss to Penn) and made more saves than Faus, will get the start, but since Faus has been starting Denver's away games, who knows?
As for stats, both goalies are about equal in size, saves and shots faced and both are surrendering about 9.5 goals per game.
Prediction: Notre Dame is bringing lacrosse to the west coast with this barnstorming game in Orange County. Their matchup with Denver is part of the Pacific Coast Shootout, which is a doubleheader matching the Irish-Denver game with a west coast MCLA (club lacrosse) matchup between Loyola Marymount and University of California-Santa Barbara. The most disappointing thing about this game is that it isn't televised, at least, that I know of. No film = unhappy Paul. :(
For history purposes, Notre Dame has beaten the Pioneers by one goal apiece in their past two matchups, including an overtime win last season and a triple OT win the previous year.
To win, the Irish will have to do what they do best: move off-ball. Denver's defense can be easily exposed by the Irish's offense and I fully expect Matt Kavanagh to have a great outing. Denver's longpoles have a clear tendency to commit penalties so Notre Dame's man-up unit will have to step up and perform because they will likely be called on 3-4 times this game.
Liam O'Connor played out of his mind against North Carolina and I'd like to see him keep that up. Denver's faceoff trio of Christian Thomas, Joe Bano and Chris Hampton are only winning about 44% of their faceoffs between the three of them, so I fully expect O'Connor to win 60-65% of his faceoffs yet again. Maintaining possession will be key to keep the Pioneers off the scoreboard.
Defensively, it is hard to pinpoint where the Irish should match up. Unlike North Carolina, who clearly ran everything on attack off Joey Sankey, Denver has three capable attackmen. That said, I expect to see the Tewaaraton watch listers mark each other, as O'Hara will take Berg. I expect Buglione will mark Bobzien, which means that Zach Miller could be in for a good day as Corrigan will have to find out which longpole can handle him. It will be key for Notre Dame's middies to stop the Denver middies from getting clear feeds to the attackmen. Perkovic will have to play like his 2nd half self and Marlatt will have to maintain order up at the top of the box to protect the Irish longpoles.
Goalie-wise, I am unsure. Conor Kelly couldn't have had worse outing against the Tar Heels, but a lot of that was momentum and nerves. If Kelly does start, it is imperative that he get a couple solid saves to start the game to boost his confidence. As a former LSM/Defender, my goalies always liked it when you talked them up and calmed them down during games. Half of the position is mental, and the Irish defense will be key in keeping Kelly focused and on his game. Forcing long shots from the point will help Kelly's psyche. That said, if Corrigan has pulled the plug on Kelly and goes with Shane Doss, the Irish benefit from a true Freshman goalie that held his own against the #2 team in the country and made 10 saves. I wouldn't be surprised with either starting the game.
I fully expect the Irish to win this game. Denver is not the team they were a year before and their offensive-heavy style of play works right into the Irish's hands. With a better faceoff man, more fluid defense and a goalie with confidence, the Irish have a shot to win by 3-4 goals. Since Denver has routinely played Notre Dame close and got their last win against the Irish at a neutral site (2008), anything can happen. I just don't see it though. I think the Irish win this one.