Photo by Jeff Bell – UltiPhotos.com
Perhaps the best marker of what a great game Vancouver Nighthawks and Seattle Rainmakers played last Saturday night at Thunderbird Stadium was that even though their team lost 21-15 and was thereby eliminated from playoff contention, the home fans stood and applauded both teams off the field after the game. The game was a showcase for what MLU can deliver: fast, competitive, spirited play in a beautiful setting for an appreciative and knowledgeable audience.
Before going on to discuss the game itself, I’d like to talk about those fans. One of my favourite moments of the evening was when the home fans applauded a fantastic Greatest for a score by Seattle, a gesture I am sure the Seattle players noticed. You know you are performing for a sophisticated audience when they applaud the other team!
Head Coach Andrew Lugsdin certainly noticed.
“The fans were great. We have unbelievable fans and my only wish is that we could have pulled out a win for them. They appreciate good ultimate and recognized a great play by Seattle. We definitely felt their support throughout the game. They give our guys lots of energy and the team wants to represent them and the city by playing well.”
Vancouver’s Player of the Game award winner Mark Leduc really enjoyed playing for this crowd.
“The Vancouver fans are the best in the league, hands down. Not only do they cheer hard for us all game regardless of the score, but they are very appreciative of good ultimate, as evidenced by their recognition of Seattle when they pulled off the Greatest, and by their appreciation for both teams after a hard-fought game.”
This night the audience was especially enthusiastic because it included a number of teams from around the province that were spending the weekend competing at the provincial high school ultimate championships. D Line Cutter Aaron Koenig really enjoyed having them in the stands.
“I thought this was the most energetic crowd we’ve seen in Vancouver so far, most likely due to the energy of all those high school students. I loved hearing all the chants from the sidelines. The group from Kaslo in particular seemed very engaged in the game.”
Kaslo is a small town in the interior of the province.
“I spoke with a number of the kids from Kaslo and their chaperones afterwards and some of them were actually starry-eyed. One adult told me how he loves the integrity and respect we all show each other on the field and how much better it is than the fighting and roughness in hockey. I thought that was quite notable, as I would have expected a place like Kaslo to have hockey deeply integrated into life there.”
Although the Nighthawks did not manage to reward the enthusiasm of the fans with a win, they did play well.
Says Lugsdin, “I thought it was the best game of the year for us. We played quite well throughout the game other than the third quarter, when our O line really lost their way and couldn’t get back on track. When you give up an 8-1 run (8-6 to 14-9), it’s impossible to win. I thought Seattle came into our home stadium and played at an elite level throughout the game. They were the better team, never let up, made the big plays when they needed them, and were well deserving of the win.”
As usual, it was the D line that led the way for the Nighthawks, but the experienced Seattle O line is just too good to shut down for an entire game.
“Our D line played solidly, and we had a number of near blocks early in the game. In fact, I think we got our hands on at least four discs that Seattle ended up catching anyways. That being said, we were never really able to slow them down for long. Their team does a very good job of resetting the disc and moving it from side to side. Their handlers never looked too pressured and looked to be very in control. They were a big difference in the game.”
Koenig gives the coaching staff part of the credit for the D line having such a solid game.
“Part of the difference may have been due to the analysis players had been doing ahead of time and the thought put into matchups on D. More so than any other game, the core D line guys each had a specific player to cover and had goals for what they wanted to shut down for that player. Also, the coaches shuffled the line-ups around a little bit. Some guys who normally play O line were playing defense and did a great job of it. Once again, I think Alex Davis was key to setting the tone in the first half. He did a great job in his match-up against Phil Murray.”
Mark Leduc, who until last Saturday night had only played on the O line, agrees.
“All season we have been getting D’s, especially from Aaron Liu on handlers and Alex Davis in the lanes, but what made the difference in this game was that our D line’s offensive chances off turnovers were being converted into points. We switched Andy Collins and me over to the D-line to provide a more offensive mentality in the lanes after a turnover and it paid off, not necessarily because we two were throwing or scoring goals, but because it allowed other players to fill roles that they were more comfortable filling. In particular, Mike Aizawa did great job of filling his role as a continuation cutter, digging deep to score on a long pass to end a multi-turnover point.”
One of the biggest problems the Nighthawks have been unable to shake is having one bad quarter per game. On Saturday night it was the 3rd quarter, which started with an 8-7 lead for Vancouver and ended with Seattle up 16-11. Lugsdin puts the onus on the O line for that costly lapse.
“Our O line has been improving all season and had their best game so far except for that 3rd quarter. We had our best stretch of cutting from our lane cutters, and for three quarters, they did a great job of scoring very efficiently. Unfortunately, a few mistakes at the beginning of the 3rd quarter seemed to snowball and they weren’t able to get it in the end zone until after we took a time out to try and reset things. By then, we’d created a huge hole for ourselves.”
“The bottom line is that some of our young players need to get a little more experience in those situations and we also need to improve our talent level. We’ve played well at times but never for a whole game and that’s a sign that our talent level and consistency needs to improve.”
I asked which Nighthawks players stood out in the game, and am taking it as a good sign that a number of different players were mentioned.
Lugsdin responded, “In terms of individuals, Aaron Loach played a very good game and has probably been our best offensive player. He’s had a very good season and continues to get better. Prez (Aaron Liu) is another young player who’s been our best defensive player this season. Having Oscar Pottinger back helped us offensively. Kevin Underhill again played very solidly for us and Kirk Savage gave us a nice boost offensively in the fourth quarter.”
Leduc zeroed in on Pottinger, who led the Nighthawks in scoring.
“I would say Oscar’s play really stood out for me last night. Not many people know this, but he got off a plane after a 10+ hour flight, then drove straight to the stadium and contributed 7 points seemingly effortlessly while jet-lagged.”
Says Koenig, “Mark Leduc and Alex Davis both played very well, Leduc displaying his ability to strike and grab everything that comes his way, and Davis showing his intensity and focus on defense. It was also great to see Mark Roberts make his first appearance after tearing his PCL at the preseason combine. He’s a different type of player than our other O line cutters, so it will be interesting to watch what he can do for the rest of the season.”
And speaking of the rest of the season, Lugsdin faces the familiar dilemma of coaching a team that has missed the playoffs but has games left to play: concentrate on winning the remaining games, or concentrate on preparing for next season by trying out lesser-used players and new offensive and defensive schemes at the expense of winning.
It turns out that he had already talked this over with his players and assistant coaches.
“We talked after the game about our goals for rest of the season. Primarily, we need to get better as a team and the remaining games are an opportunity for us to do just that, but we also want to play well for our fans. So even though we’re out of the playoffs, we still will be trying to win all of our remaining games while also trying to improve.”
The Nighthawks’ next game will be at home against San Francisco Dogfish at 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 8th. You can buy tickets here.