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What's wrong with the Waterdogs? Nothing. Not even the faceoff.

The Philadelphia Waterdogs are 0-3. The boys in purple have played in each of the last two PLL Championships, winning one, and played in the title game of the PLL Championship Series last February. As happens in sports, fans and viewers are eager to start pointing fingers and assigning blame for the bad start.

The detractors are pointing to the faceoff spot. The Waterdogs have yet to dress a faceoff specialist for a game. Before week one, Head Coach and GM Bill Tierney released Alec Stathakis. Tierney offered the caveat that Stathakis was finishing his master’s program, and the expectation was Stathakis would be signed back to the team when he was done. Without a specialist, the Waterdogs are facing off at just under 10% through their first three games. Surely all that lost possession is critical? That must be wear the games are being lost?

The thinking for the Waterdogs is still that the pressure is squarely on the offense in a :32 second clock. If the opponent takes the faceoff but the :32 second offense is poor, rushed, or results in a loss of possession, then the faceoff loss impact is significantly reduced. So how has that been going?

In their first game, they played Utah. Mike Sisselberger went 23 of 25, with one score. Game two, Zac Tucci went 18 of 24 with four scores. Game three, Joe Nardella went a perfect 31 for 31, but no points. Let’s take a closer look at how some of those :32 possessions went, and the :52 that followed for Philadelphia.

The Archers' Mike Sisselberger went 23/25 facing off, and the two losses were on a violation and a push call after he won the clamp. The Archers scored a goal four times in the :32 immediately following the faceoff win. One of those was a Sisselberger scoop and score, so no Archers offense was played. Seven times, the possession ended in a turnover without a shot, five times with a shot that missed. If the Archers didn’t score, the Waterdogs got a full :52 on the possession that followed. The first three possessions of the game in that first :52 ended with a Dobson save. Nine times in total the first :52 after the faceoff loss ended with a save. Another time the Dogs actually ran offense in the :32 and got a shot on net that was saved. Four times it ended with a goal. Three times it just ended in a turnover without a shot of any kind, on cage or not.

The Waterdogs dug a big hole in this game, falling behind 12-4 in the first half, but they ran off seven straight in the 2nd half to get within 12-11, and held the Archers scoreless for the game’s final 20:23. Archers goalie Brett Dobson made 23 saves in this game, if he makes 21, the Waterdogs win the game. Waterdogs had more possession time, more completed passes, more touches, committed just eight turnovers, and outshot the Archers 51-36. Is the problem here the faceoff? Or is the problem that they didn’t shoot particularly well against one of the best goalies in the league already having a hot day, and the Archers committed a whopping 25 turnovers in the game and the Waterdogs failed to capitalize? Ten possessions out of 19 where, in one case in the :32 and the rest in their first following an Archers :32, they took a shot that got saved is an indication of not shooting well enough to beat Brett Dobson, not faceoffs being the reason they lost.

Game two, the opponent is the Boston Cannons. Zac Tucci went 18/24 facing off in this game. Following Tucci’s faceoff wins, the Cannons had four scoring plays in the :32. Three of them were Tucci scores, including a last gasp two pointer before the half. If they didn’t score, the Waterdogs had two goals in the first :52 that followed on the possession that followed. On six different occasions in that first :52 they put a shot on net that was saved. Only once did they take a shot that missed the net in their first :52 possession.

The most interesting faceoff number here is what happens when the Dogs won. Six wins on the day is not many. However in the :32, the Waterdogs scored three goals, forced two great saves from Colin Kirst, and saw the quarter end once.

The Waterdogs caused 10 turnovers in this game, once again forcing the opponent into a high turnover total but failing to capitalize consistently. Tucci hit a 30 yard two point buzzer beater before half time, the kind of shot Dillon Ward lets in once in a lifetime, to take a one goal halftime deficit and make it three goals. Yet Philly outscored Boston 6-4 over the course of the second half and OT. Once again, the two pointer did them in, with Tucci’s and another from Matt Campbell hurting most. On top of that, Colin Kirst made 15 saves, six of them coming on possessions after a wasted :32 by the Cannons offense. A fairly lackluster shooting day for the Waterdogs hurts them here.

This is the game you can point where a faceoff specialist missing hurt most, given the nature of the way the game ended and the first half ended, and the fact that the Waterdogs were very good following the rare faceoff win in this one. But in my eyes, it didn’t hurt enough to say it’s the reason they lost the game.

Game three, another OT loss, this time against the Maryland Whipsnakes. Joe Nardella was perfect in this one, going 31/31. It was the first game where Philadelphia did not primarily use Zach Currier on draws, instead allowing him to expend energy on the offensive end of the field. The Whips scored a goal on possessions in the :32 following Nardella’s faceoff wins a total of three times. Three goals out of 31 clean wins. If they didn’t score, the Waterdogs scored a goal on the following possession in the :52 a total of 11 times. The Waterdogs had a poor second quarter though. All six possessions in the :32 in the 2nd quarter by the Whips ended in shots wide of the net, turnovers, or saves by Ward. On the :52 possessions that followed those, the Waterdogs took a total of nine shots, four possessions having more than one. Only one of those turned into a goal. Three were saved, five missed the net. Each other quarter saw the Dogs shooting decently well in the first :52, but the 2nd quarter was poor. The Waterdogs allowed seven scores in the third quarter, including a pair of twos. They allowed a game tying goal with a minute to go. In OT, Sowers fed Kieran McArdle on the doorstep with enough time to throw multiple fakes, and Brendan Krebs made a circus save to keep the ball out and deny the Waterdogs to win.

The rub? In three games, the Waterdogs have taken 80 faceoffs. They’ve lost 72. In those 72 possessions, the opponent has scored in the :32 11 times. That’s about 15% of the time. That’s basically the script for running the prevent. Force short clock possessions resulting in inefficient offense. But you then need to capitalize on the other end. In the Waterdogs first :52 possession following a faceoff loss, they’ve taken 58 shots. That shot got saved 25 times. It went in the goal 17 times and 11 of those came against the Whips.

Shooting in those first :52 possessions looks to be part of the issue. Shooting, and shooting from range. They can’t stretch a defense to the arc. The Dogs are the only team in the PLL without a two pointer. They have attempted a league low 12 two point shots, just four per game. Everyone in the league has hit at least two, and attempts at least five per game. The Cannons and Outlaws are up around eight per game, the Atlas are at six attempts per game. Two pointers are massive swings in the PLL. How important are they? The Waterdogs are winless in three games. Against Utah, just in terms of how many times they actually put the ball in the net, it was the same number of times as the opponent. In the other two games, they actually put the ball in the net more times than their opponent. But the opponent hit at least one two pointer in each of those games, and so the Waterdogs ended up with three losses.

The execution is fine. The offense is fine. Michael Sowers has been outstanding, with 14 points in three games and a balanced seven and seven on goals and assists. Sowers has the second most touches in the league, trailing only Jeff Teat. Yet, there are 46 PLL players who have committed more turnovers than Sowers this season. For his usage, he’s playing incredibly efficient lacrosse. As a team, the Waterdogs have committed the second fewest number of turnovers in the league with just 37. The defense is fine. Their SAA is 13, the same as Boston and New York. They have caused more turnovers than anyone in the PLL by a wide margin, the only team over 30 in the stat. The shooting is where things start to hurt. Goalies are averaging just over 17 saves per game against the Waterdogs, with a save percentage of just over 58%. Every goalie in the PLL is world class, the Waterdogs have also taken enough poor shots or telegraphed shots that they are making it too easy for these netminders. Dobson stuffed them 23 times week one. Colin Kirst was on fire in the first half game two, stealing multiple goals with saves you wouldn’t expect. Against the Whips, the usually automatic McArdle had a doorstep layup kept out on a downright miraculous save from Krebs, and the Waterdogs never saw the ball again.

The rule change for this year has brought back the faceoff specialist in some regards. Without a pole at the faceoff spot, it’s harder to dictate where the opponent exits, and harder to force the ball to move to certain places. Faceoff specialists are exiting much more comfortably against shorties, and, for the most parts, teams are much better at subbing their personnel and being in their offensive set quicker after wins. The Atlas are drastically improved, all teams have taken strides though. With the Cannons abandoning the prevent (at least for now), the Waterdogs are the last team going into games with no specialist. When you’re the only team doing something, it becomes very easy for people to point to that thing and say that’s why they are losing.

If the Waterdogs were 3-0, which they very easily could be, the volume on the faceoff talk goes way down. The Waterdogs haven’t shot well through three games, and that’s enough to end up on the wrong side of three one goal contests, two in OT. Shooting woes are the primary issue they’re having. Only the Atlas have taken more shots than the Waterdogs, yet there are five teams with more scores than the Waterdogs. The two teams behind them have only played two games. Is facing off part of the Waterdogs bad start? Maybe in part, but not a large enough part that just adding a specialist would magically turn their fortunes around. Jack Hannah coming back to help as a shooter might have more to do with a turnaround then chasing a faceoff specialist.

After the most recent loss, Sowers remembered a moment from a few years ago. In 2022, after an 0-3 start, Sowers recalled how the vets and then coach Andy Copelan pulled everyone together in the locker room to say it’s alright, we’ve got the right group. That team won the PLL title. The Waterdogs shooting percentage has improved from game to game for each of the first three games. They can be back there again.


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