Just when it seemed like the pecking order had been established in the Western Conference of MLU, the previously winless Portland Stags took down the previously unbeaten San Francisco Dogfish last week, meaning both playoff positions are still up for grabs. This week the Vancouver Nighthawks need to do some grabbing for themselves by beating San Francisco when they meet at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Bay Area.

This won’t be an easy task, as three key players will be missing. O line handler Oscar Pottinger and his 15 assists will be unable to attend the game, while defensive standout Morgan Hibbert has broken his thumb and Jordan Tessarolo and his 10 goals will also be missing due to injury. And to make things even tougher, Dogfish mainstays Beau Kittridge, Russell Wynne, Martin Cocrhan, and Ashlyn Joye will all be back after missing last week’s game due to duties with the US World Games team.

I asked Assistant Coach Greg Shiring whether this is a must-win game.

“It would obviously be great to get a win this weekend and that is what we’ll be working toward. That said, our focus right now isn’t on the various win/loss scenarios that will get us to the playoffs, but rather on continuing to work hard and get better with each practice and each game. “

Hibbert has a little different way of looking at it.

“I don’t believe in must-win until mathematically it is actually a must-win. That being said, it is really damn close. In order to qualify for the playoffs we simply need to have a .500 record or better against each of the other three teams in the west. Right now we are 0-1 against San Francisco and with only three games total between us we need the W to win the season series against them.”

Offensive stalwart Mark Leduc just plain wants to win every game.

“If we want to get in the playoffs, no questions asked, without having to worry about what other teams do, we need seven wins. That means every single game from here on out is a must-win game, starting with the game against San Francisco tomorrow.”

“Actually, we can afford to lose to Portland and still make the playoffs if we win the other four games against Seattle and San Francisco, but I’d rather just win all the games from here on out.”

To do this, the Nighthawks will have to deal with several persistent problems. The most damaging has been slow starts in every game, particularly from the O line.

I asked Coach Shiring, who handles the offense, what the Nighthawks are going to do to address the slow starts.

“We continue to adjust each week and learn from our experiences, and we do plan to tweak our pre-game routine a bit. We’ve had some great second halves, and if we can get that intensity and level of play going earlier in the upcoming games, we’ll be in good shape.”

Leduc again gives a straightforward response.

“It’s quite simple. We just need to play like we do in the second half of games for the entire game. Our focus should be on ourselves, and if we play up to the level we’re capable of I don’t think there is any team that can beat us.”

Given that Vancouver has handily won the second half of every game so far, he’s probably right

The other problem the Nighthawks need to deal with is their tendency to give up scores in the last few seconds of quarters and halves. The most egregious example is probably the last-second goal that gave San Francisco an 18-17 win when the teams met in Vancouver last month.

Shiring says, “We’ve got a good strategy in place for the end of the quarters, and aside from a couple of lapses last week, we feel good about it.”

Hibbert zeroes in on the defense,

“We need to be more aggressive as the clock runs down. We need to stick to our defensive principles and force the issue instead of sitting back passively.”

Leduc is a little more diagnostic.

“The ends of quarters have been a nightmare for us, both on offense and defense, with the exception of the games against Portland. We still haven’t got used to playing with a clock, which is a problem this far into the season.”

“We are fine when the opposing team gets the disc with under 15 seconds to go, but between 30 to 15 seconds we play off a bit too much and let them get too far down the field, giving them decent chances to score. We really just need to go back to playing tight man-on-man defense at the end of quarters. On offense, we just need to be more aware of the time and be more urgent to score.”

I asked Shiring about dealing with the missing players. It will be particularly hard to make up for Hibbert, who is one of the best huck defenders in the game.

“We’re looking forward to seeing some of the other guys step up and take advantage of the additional playing time. We’ve got our backups ready; they’ll be ready to battle.”

In spite of the 2-3 record, he likes where the team is right now.

“At the halfway point of the season, the team feels like it is in a great place. Everybody has been working hard, and working well together, and we’re now pretty comfortable with the rules and structure of the MLU. We’ve had some great battles and although we came up just short in a couple of games, we continue to learn and get better.”

“You can feel the momentum building, and the intensity, and the battle has really just begun. We are all really looking forward to the second half of the season.”

If you’re going to be in the Bay Area, you can buy tickets for the game here.

Otherwise, you’ll be able to watch a live stream of the game here.

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