Sports fans love upsets. At this time of the year March Madness often dominate the headlines with lower seeds knocking out college basketball giants (Mercer!) in the opening rounds of the tournament. In the Canadian Lacrosse League playoff semifinals no such “shockers” occurred last weekend as the top two teams both advanced in highly-contested games.
Regular season winner Ohsweken Demons rolled over the competition most of this CLax season, scoring a league-high 127 goals in winning seven of eight games. Their playoff matchup against SouthWest Cyclops, whom they defeated twice (21-19 & 20-13) earlier this winter, was a different type of pace, but a second half rally saw Ohsweken advance with a 12-10 victory.
Playing without one of its team leaders in Wayne Van Every, Ohsweken started off slow and the Cyclops took advantage. First quarter goals from Jake Crans and Ryan Campbell had SouthWest leading the heavy-favored Demons 2-1 at the intermission.
“I didn’t worry about missing the game too much. I was confident they would win,” commented Van Every. A previous commitment kept the veteran away, but he is ready for the final. “The final will be a good game and possibly a run-n-gun game, but they guys will be ready for the challenge. A big game for big players.”
The two teams traded goals in the second quarter and a Shane Francis goal at 1:53 tied the game at 5-5. Torrey Van Every scored twice for the Demons in the opening half while Crans added a second goal for SouthWest.
Like many games this season, Ohsweken came out of the locker room and took over in the second half. A five-goal flurry made the score 10-6 before the Cyclops fought back with a pair of their own. With just :27 remaining, Elijah Printup scored the sixth (and eventual game-winning) goal of the quarter for the Demons who led 11-8 going into the final frame.
An early fourth quarter goal from Jason Henhawk made the score 12-8. The final 12 minutes of the game the Demons showed they could play some defense as well, holding SouthWest to just two goals to earn their spot in the Creators’ Cup final.
The path for the Niagara Lock Monsters went slightly different then the Demons. An early season run saw Niagara at 4-0 and on top of the CLax standings. Then the two losses at the hands of Ohsweken came to knock the Lock Monsters into second place, where they finished the regular season. That earned Niagara a berth to host a semifinal against the leagues hottest team, Barrie Blizzard.
Riding a four-game winning streak, including an upset over Ohsweken, Barrie were possibly the most dangerous opponent for anyone in the final month of play. That momentum did not carry over into the semifinal though as Niagara held on for a 9-8 victory.
Leading 2-1 after one quarter of play, Niagara blitzed the Blizzard for five unanswered goals in the second to take a commanding 7-1 halftime lead.
With a spot in the league final at stake, Barrie would not lay down. Caleb Wiles scored his first of a game-high six goals in the opening minute of the third to let the Lock Monsters know they were in for a fight. With 5:54 remaining in the game Wiles scored his sixth of the night and Barrie had tied the game 8-8.
A battered Niagara club would recover in the final minutes and at 2:28 Bryan Neufeld scored the game-winner to send the Lock Monsters to their first Creators’ Cup final.
With the highest scoring team set to face the leagues stingiest defense (Niagara gave up just 70 goals in the regular season) fans can expect a competitive final. With both teams having proven scorers, defense could take the spotlight, like in many championship games.
“Both teams are strong offensively and we are going to have to score on our chances,” said Van Every. “Beating a good team three times [in one season] would be an accomplishment. We had one goal at the beginning of the season and that was to keep the cup in Six Nations!”