The PLL Championship is upon us. After a summer featuring ups and downs, 15 different one goal games, remarkable individual performances and team stories, it has come down to two. Archers and Waterdogs will battle at Subaru Park on Sunday. Waterdogs are seeking to defend their title from a year ago, Archers are seeking to get over the hump and win their first title. Both teams won handily in the semifinals, and coaches of both winning and losing teams said after the games that they truly believed the two best teams in the PLL have made it to the final.
Last week, I was 0-2 on game picks and 2-0 on totals.
For the year, I am 17-16 on game picks and 14-19 on totals.
Archers (8-2, 1-0) vs Waterdogs (7-3, 2-0)
When: Sunday, September 24, 3pm EST
The Spread: Waterdogs favored by 1.5, Archers favored on ML, game total set at 25.5
The regular season meetings between these two were outstanding. They closed the regular season with a game the Waterdogs won 14-13. That game was tied at seven heading to the 4th and quarter, and then the teams erupted for 13 goals in the 4th quarter alone. The Waterdogs got a two pointer from Jack Hannah to tie the game with 30 seconds left, and then Kieran McArdle scored on a rebound put back with five seconds left to give the Waterdogs the win. An instant classic. These teams also met in Dallas, with the Archers pulling out the 19-18 win. That game had 15 first quarter goals, including three two pointers. Add that up and you get two games, decided by a combined two goals, with 64 total goals scored, and each team getting a win.
A major story will be the health and availability of Connor Fields. Fields was injured by a big hit from Garrett Epple in the semifinals, knocking him out of that game. He would appear on the sideline with his arm in a sling, and it was reported during the game that his postseason was over. However, in post game, Archers Head Coach Chris Bates would not confirm that Fields was done, they still needed to do some testing. X-Rays during the game were negative, meaning Fields' collarbone was not broken. He appeared on the injury reported listed as doubtful with an AC joint injury as suspected. It’s possible Fields could play. He may not be 100%, but he’s as tough as they come and played through a senior season at Albany on a torn ACL. In the two games this year, Fields was a monster. He totaled 11 points on 7 goals and 4 assists across the two games. With 40+ touches in both outings, he was a major factor in the Archers offense.
Waterdogs will come into the game, as they have for nearly the entire season, without a faceoff specialist. Their tactic will once again be to try and force the opposing faceoff man backwards, eating up as much of the 32 second shot clock as possible and creating a poor offensive possession for the other team. Against most of the PLL, that’s worked this year. Against the Archers, it’s a different story. The Archers have, by far, the most efficient offense in the league immediately following a faceoff win at 27.62%. There are three teams in the PLL who don’t have an offense that efficient in total. The league average for offensive efficiency is 28.6%, the Archers are just a percentage point below that if you only look at possessions after faceoff wins. Forcing bad offense via the faceoff prevent usually begins with, as noted, making the opposing specialist go backwards. Teams can’t seem to figure out how to make Mike Sisselberger go backwards. He may exit backwards, but he picks up the ball and turns upfield better than any other faceoff specialist, absorbing contact and checks and getting the ball to the attack quickly. In their first regular season meeting, Sisselberger went 33/36 facing off as expected, but only committed four turnovers. Eli Gobrecht and Zach Currier will likely draw the faceoff duties for Waterdogs, and they’ll be charged with trying to force Sisselberger backwards and into turnovers or poor decisions.
In transition, both teams are dangerous. The Archers have a rope unit that can all go defense to offense without subbing, even with Latrell Harris out of the lineup. They have generated more shots in transition than anyone in the PLL this year with 95, no one else is above 90. Tre Leclaire gets involved on both ends, expect to see Ryan Aughavin out there, and both rookie SSDMs are adept in the transition game. Connor Maher in particular is incredibly smart and finds lanes to be dangerous going from defense to offense. The Archers can use this versatility to win in the sub game, forcing opponents to keep their offensive personnel on the field or surrender a numbers advantage.
The Waterdogs have the second most shots in transition this year at 84. Like the Archers, their SSDMs can be dangerous going from D to O. Zach Currier plays both ends, but players like Matt Whitcher have emerged as a serious threat to score in transition, and he found the net for the Waterdogs in the postseason a couple times last year. Ryland Rees can hunt twos, and Eli Gobrecht is skilled as a transition threat with a pole as well.
The old adage “run on a runner” may be out on Sunday. The difference is who can do what with those possessions. For all those shots, which came on 109 transition possessions, the Archers have 23.9% efficiency on the break, the lowest in the league. The Waterdogs come in at 36.2%, the best mark in the league at transition efficiency on offense. Archers will be up to the challenge on their defensive end, they have the best transition defense in the PLL, but they’ll be tested.
In the settled game, The Archers and Waterdogs have the 2nd and 3rd most efficient offenses in the league, respectively. The Waterdogs have the most efficient settled defensive in the league, Archers 3rd best. This is the title game, it should come as no surprise that these two teams have dominated all these statistical categories. But it does make it that much more difficult to find the place where someone has an edge. Connor Fields being in the game will shuffle Waterdogs matchups. Ben Randall is the best cover defender in purple. As a righty, it makes sense to have him cover Connor Fields, a lefty. As far as I know, the only defender in the PLL who likes going lefty on lefty is Garrett Epple. With Fields out of the lineup, Randall could move to another matchup, either Mac O’Keefe (to keep the lefty/righty), or play him on Grant Ament. Liam Byrnes and Eli Gobrecht can shuffle their matchups accordingly. Truth be told, the Archers could throw multiple looks in the game. They’ve used Grant Ament, Tom Schreiber, and Matt Moore at both midfield and attack this year. A rotation allows them to keep their offensive scheme while trying to keep the defense on their heels with matchup switches. The Archers offense thrives on ball movement, spacing, and versatility. Byrnes, one of the best help defenders in the PLL, may be the most important player on their defense in this game.
The Waterdogs offense, in the playoffs, was all about Michael Sowers and Kieran McArdle. They dismantled the Whips in the quarters, combining for 15 points and either scoring or assisting on 13 of the Waterdogs 15 goals. Sowers added six more points in the semifinal dismantling of the Cannons, a total that could have been higher if the Waterdogs didn’t take their foot off the gas late with the game decided. A date with Graeme Hossack is likely on the horizon for Sowers. Hossack was a DPOY finalist this year and had a legit claim to the award. With the caveat that I don’t love the closest defender stat, Hossack has surrendered three goals this year as the nearest defender. He erases people. Early in the season, the way to stop the Waterdogs was to stop Sowers. If he wasn’t clicking, the offense fell out of rhythm. That’ll be the task of Hossack. Something to watch will be how the Archers support the matchup. The Archers trust their personnel in 1v1 situations maybe more than anyone. As such, they’re comfortable switching on picks. The Waterdogs use razor picks to free Sowers near the goal line with a great deal of effectiveness, the worst outcome usually being a matchup switch that Sowers can attack. If the Archers continue to switch aggressively, even on Sowers, then Sowers will be able to find matchups he can win as a dodger. The Waterdogs are a different team now than they were in June though, and have the depth of weapons to deal with a limited Sowers. In the regular season finale, the Waterdogs got goals from seven different players. Four of them came from Ryan Conrad, who has a knack for prime time performances. Connor Kelly now has four goals and six points, shooting 50% in the playoffs. You can be assured Zach Currier will have an impact in multiple ways. A player to watch will be Jack Hannah. As a shooter, he has gone cold in the playoffs, just 9% shooting with a single goal. Against an Archers defense that plays as well 6v6 as anyone, Waterdogs will need a depth of weapons.
Finally, the goalie matchup. A pair of Canadian netminders. Dillon Ward, now a pro and national team veteran who will be in net for Waterdogs. Brett Dobson, the young up and comer, and the future of Team Canada in net who was one of the top goalies in the PLL this year for the Archers.
It may seem like an unusual stat, but no goalie in the league created more goals this year than Dobson. Meaning that he, off a save, started play the other direction that ended with a goal more than anyone else. Dobson created 10 goals this year, seven off clean saves and three of messy saves. That figures into the Archers transition prowess as mentioned above. He created 25 shots by being aggressive off the save and throwing quick outlets to that rope unit that loves to run in transition. The only goalies with a better save percentage this year were Blaze Riorden and Ward (and Ward played in four fewer games). The only goalie to make more saves was Riorden, and Dobson led the PLL in Scores Against Average. Dobson only played half the Archers game in Salt Lake City as the Archers playoff seed was set, and in his half he was at 57% with 8 saves. In the full meeting back in Dallas, Dobson made 15 saves but the Archers surrendered 18 goals. It was one of three games where Dobson went under 50% this year. Ward missed time this year, but not with injury. He was wrapping up the NLL season, then was away on paternity leave, so he only appeared in six games. But in those games, he made a case for goalie of the year, and may have won it with a full season of games. He was over 60% in those six regular season games. He’s at 65% in two playoff games. He’s coming off a 13 saves, 72% performance against what was the best offense in the PLL this year, the Cannons. Where the Archers may be able to attack is the rebound and loose ball game. Ward has made 116 saves this season, 82 of them have been messy. With his high arc and playstyle, rebounds may be there to be had.
Where does that all shake out? Who knows. Sorry. It’s a tough call. This feels like another close game in the making. The playoffs have had their share of lopsided scores, but these two teams have delivered a classic in both prior meetings, these feels like the latest installment.
The Waterdogs defensive possessions end in a surrendered goal 24.2% of the time, the best mark in the PLL. The Archers defensive possessions end in a surrendered goal 25.1% of the time, second best in the league. On the other end, 38% of the Waterdogs offensive possessions end with them committing a turnover, best in the PLL. For Archers, it’s 40.4%, second best in the PLL. Add that up and it tells both these teams are not going to be out there beating themselves. Goals will have to be earned, and turnovers will be magnified.
I’m looking for another close game, possibly even an overtime affair, to settle the series between these two. With it being that tight, I’m going to take the goals. Archers +1.5 is the pick, and the game goes over.