The 1-1 Vancouver Nighthawks are hosting the 2-0 Portland Stags for Vancouver’s home opener at Thunderbird Stadium this Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.

Dating back to last season, Portland has won seven of its last nine games, including both games so far this season, and the veteran roster that went 8-2 in 2014 has returned almost intact. Meanwhile, the Nighthawks lost many of the veterans that powered them all the way to the MLU Championship game last season, so are breaking in no fewer than 20 MLU rookies.

So it looks like an easy Portland win, right? The MLU’s roster of experts certainly thinks so, with every single one of them predicting a Portland win, albeit a close one. Not so fast!

Those two losses that Portland has suffered during the 7-2 streak were both inflicted by the Nighthawks, and the flock of rookies on the Nighthawks roster has been playing well above expectations. After looking a bit nervous at times during their opening game loss in San Francisco, last weekend in Seattle the new guys were noticeably better as Vancouver had little trouble handling the Rainmakers on their way to a confidence-building win on the road.

Who has impressed most among the rookies?

Nighthawks coach Andrew Lugsdin (who will be unable to attend Sunday’s game, with senior players taking on motivational and line-handling duties in his stead) has already mentioned Nathan Lam as taking on a vital role on the D-line with his energy and smarts.

“Nathan has been playing incredibly well on the D-line,” said Nighthawks veteran Aaron Loach. “He has fit snugly into place.”

Another newcomer who has attracted notice, and not just from his coach, is Samson Hoy.

“Samson has demonstrated a good ability to adapt to new roles quickly,” said Loach. “He made the transition from D-line handler to O-line handler in the middle of a game and it was seamless.”

“Hoy has a very subtle game, maybe not as flashy as some but fundamentally sound, and he plays the game technically very well,” said Nighthawks captain Morgan Hibbert. “He has been an asset to us on both the offensive and defensive sides of the disc.”

With a young and inexperienced team, you know it’s going to be a work in progress, so the improvement from the first to the second game is an encouraging precursor of what’s to come.

“The offensive flow was significantly improved in Game 2,” said Hibbert. “Lane cutters got open for big yardage and scored at a very high rate. I am hoping we can continue that trend and get some easy goals.”

Hibbert is looking for this improvement to help the Nighthawks to build on last year’s success against the Stags.

“Last year I feel like we had the right one-on-one matchups, which allowed us to apply strong defensive pressure and take away the things that they like to do,” said Hibbert. “[American football coach] Bill Belichick always talks about ‘forcing your opponent to play left handed.’ I think we were able to achieve that last year, and I think we can do it again this year with the players we have.”

For Loach, it’s not so much about the matchups as it is the defensive scheme.

“Portland is a young, fast and athletic team,” he said. “They often look to the long game, and we’ve done a good job of slowing down their offence and increasing the number of passes required before they score. While this doesn’t always work, it has given us an edge on them. I don’t think it’s that we necessarily match up well against them, but rather as a team we’ve had strong strategies going into the game to give us a helpful edge.”

In the MLU’s first season, the Nighthawks were torched by the Stags’ Timmy Perston; as he tallied 15 goals in their three meetings. In the only regular season game he played against Vancouver last year – he missed the other two due to work commitments – Perston added nine more goals to his stats.

But in the Western Conference Championship game, the Nighthawks, especially Hibbert, who seemed to take Perston’s earlier success personally, were able to limit him to only seven touches of the disc and two goals on their way to winning by a single goal. Keep an eye on this on Sunday. If Hibbert and his teammates can limit Perston’s touches as effectively as they did in that game, they should be well on their way to a win.

But the Stags do have plenty of other weapons to deploy. So far this season Peter Woodside leads Portland with seven goals (to Perston’s five), and with Topher Davis leading their D-line and veterans like Cody Bjorklund and Eli Blackman running the offence, they will be hard to beat.

For the Nighthawks, Kirk Savage, who is third in MLU scoring with four goals and eight assists, has been at his masterful best running the offence, ably assisted by Bobo Eyrich with seven goals and four assists, and of course Brendan Wong, who leads the team with eight goals, which ranks him second in the league. On the other side of the disc, Morgan Hibbert’s four blocks ranks him third in the MLU.

Perhaps injuries will decide the outcome, with Blackman, Hoy and Wong all battling various hurts.

You can buy tickets to Sunday’s game here.

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