With the second playoff spot at stake in the Western Conference, Vancouver hosts the the first place Portland Stags this Sunday evening at Thunderbird Stadium.

Though the Nighthawks swept their last two games against the Seattle Rainmakers to move into a tie with Seattle for second place thus securing tiebreaker over Seattle, the second spot in the playoffs are by no means a sure thing.

If Vancouver can win their last two games, they will play the Western Conference finals against Portland, but if they lose both games, they will retain second place and the final playoff berth only if Seattle also loses both their remaining games, which are both against Portland.

If the Nighthawks split their remaining games, they will get in unless Seattle beats Portland twice. This seems unlikely, particularly as the entire Western Conference season has not unfolded as expected. Remember, Portland was a consensus pick for last place before the season.

It is fitting that Sunday’s game is against Portland, who will be Vancouver’s playoff opponents if they hold on to second. After beating Portland in all three meetings last year, this season the Nighthawks have lost to Portland twice, 23-21 in Portland in the first game of the season and then 19-16 at Thunderbird Stadium three weeks ago.

You would think that Vancouver would be especially motivated to show they can beat the Stags, particularly in the possible playoff location, but both the coaching staff and the players have consistently portrayed themselves as having a one play at a time, one point at a time, one game at a time mindset.

“We haven’t really focused on the playoff implications other than that the game is important, as all of our last few have been,” says Head Coach Andrew Lugsdin. “What we’ve focused on instead is not getting ahead of ourselves. The guys played well the last couple of games but we want to remember why we were able to play well and not assume that we can just show up and do well. We need to push ourselves at practice to keep getting better and avoid complacency.”

“I’ll approach the game the same way as all the other games, with the intention of winning,” says MLU scoring leader Brendan Wong. “Training and practice remains focused on keeping up fundamental skills and adding on nuances with running plays or playing defense in a way that will hopefully help to beat our opponents. Certainly, our season is on the line and a victory is a must for us, so being mentally prepared in that respect will also be part of this week’s game preparation.”

The always thoughtful Mark Leduc phrases things a little differently.

“Personally, I’ll be approaching the game with a playoffs mindset,” says Leduc. “I see every game we play from now until the end of the season as win-or-go-home. That means leaving it all out on the field through every point, every quarter, every game. Any slip up of intensity or focus from here on out can mean that our season is over, and I am going to do everything I can to make sure that our season ends in Philadelphia with a trophy in our hands.”

Earlier in the season, the Nighthawks, after bringing in a number of players, some young and inexperienced, were plagued by inconsistency, but this seems to have turned around. Their stable line-up has been instrumental in this change from last season. For all of last year and even during the first few games this season, the line-up was in constant flux, but for the last half dozen games, there have been relatively few absences due to injury or other commitments.

Leduc points to two main benefits that ensue.

“The more players we have, the less each individual has to play. This means that we can always have fresh players on the field, and when you’re on the field you don’t have to worry about saving energy for the next point or for crunch time. And being able to practice and play with the same players on a regular basis makes it easier to know what to expect on the field.”

“Together, these factors lead to less time spent thinking on the field and I’ve always believed that the less time you spend thinking about what to do on the field, the more time you’ll have to actually do the right thing.”

But with the necessarily critical mindset of a coach, Lugsdin is not sure his team has turned this particular corner.

“I’m not really sure if I’m ready to declare that we’re no longer inconsistent. We’ve played two solid games which were far from perfect after two really poor games. We have a long way to go to get to where we need to be. That being said, we are continuing to make progress. There is no specific adjustment that we’ve made but rather we’re getting better at doing what we’ve been working on all year. We’ve had moments earlier in the season where we were playing well and then we lost it. I am hoping we can build on our last two games as opposed to taking a step backwards this time.”

With both losses to Portland being close, a few tactical and strategic adjustments might be all it takes for the Nighthawks to come out on top this time. Lugsdin isn’t as worried about the offense, feeling their scheme is sound, that they just have to avoid making errors.

Leduc agrees. In his opinion it was easy drops and throwaways by the O-line that led to the loss against the Stags in the opening game of the season in Portland, but he also points to another factor that he feels led to the loss in Vancouver last month. The Nighthawks should avoid trying to match Portland’s huck game when the strength of Vancouver’s offense is maintaining control of the disc and taking what the defense gives them.

On the other side of the disc, Lugsdin has made some adjustments to his defensive scheme.

“In the first game, we gave them too much space and they ate us up underneath. Partway through that game, we tried to adjust and they went back to what they’ve beaten us on in the past which is striking deep. We need to find a better balance in our positioning on man D. They’re playing really well offensively and I think we’re going to have to give them some different looks to try and get them out of their comfort zone.”

Fortunately for the Nighthawks, Portland will be fatigued after traveling north and then playing the previous night in Seattle, but just as much as the Nighthawks, the Stags will be looking to make a statement against a likely playoff opponent. This will be a great match-up between two excellent teams, and it won’t surprise anyone if the winner is decided in the last few minutes.

You can catch Wong, Leduc and the rest of their teammates at the Nighthawks’ game against the Portland Stags on Sunday, June 15 at 6 p.m at the University of British Columbia’s Thunderbird Stadium.

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