Sunday, September 4, 2016

Chiefs overcome 3-0 series deficit, 6-4 game deficit to win Major Series Lacrosse championship

The Chiefs posing with a hard-earned MSL championship trophy. (Photo: Tim Prothero)
Someone will have to comb through the records to see if it's ever been done, but Six Nations Chiefs accomplishment of coming back from down 3-0 to win the Major Series Lacrosse championship series is at the very least a rare feat.

Not only did they come back from down in the series, the Chiefs had to come back from a deficit in Game 7 Saturday night. They trailed the Peterborough Lakers 6-4 in the second period and 6-5 after 40 spectacularly entertaining minutes.

Then three goals in the first 5:19 of the third period put Six Nations ahead bya pair and they held on for a 10-7 win that sends them to the Mann Cup for the third time in four seasons.

Naturally, in a matchup between two such excellent teams, it took contributions from up and down the lineup to make it happen. Dillon Ward won the Johnny Shooter Davis award as playoffs MVP, closing it out with his 45-save performnce.

Dhane Smith's 5-point night (3 goals, 2 assists) gave him the playoff scoring lead with 41 points, just one ahead of his fellow Chiefs righty Dan Dawson.

Austin Staats scored 2 goals and 2 assists, giving the 18-year-old a 33-point playoff run since joining the team partway through the semis against Brooklin to fill in for injured lefty forwards.

Speaking of lefty forwards, no one else in the series was 4-0 but Cody Jamieson, who strapped on a brace to support a knee that will need surgery at the end of the season and sparked his team through his leadership and sheer presence, as well as the 11 points he scored in those four wins.

As much as their offence and goaltending contributed, though, defence may well have been the engine that drove the Chiefs to the Mann Cup this year, where they will face the Maple Ridge Burrards starting Friday, September 9.

Billy Dee Smith enjoyed his own return from injury, coming back after minor surgery to join the team with one game left in the regular season. He was a force to be reckoned with at the back end and helped the Chiefs D corps coalesce as a unit through the course of the finals.

“We got Paul Dawson at the trade deadline. I played one game before Brooklin. It was really late gelling as a team. You didn't really know what to expect,” Billy Dee Smith said after the series finale. “You never know with new guys coming into the group. I didn't know with me coming in that late. Hopefully you're going to be a good thing for the team. It ends up our defence is really good.”

Really good, indeed. Just ask Ward, who was excellent throughout the series except in Game 3, and he will deflect plenty of credit to the defenders who let him see the ball. That is partly modesty from a goalie at the top of his game, but there's plenty of truth to it as well.

Bringing in Paul Dawson at the trade deadline and having Billy Dee Smith come back injected some of the size and toughness this team was known for when it won the Mann Cup in 2013 and '14. It wasn't fun for opponents to face those defences and this year's group is making it less fun to play against the Chiefs now.

You don't really know how often you're going to be back here. You can't take anything for granted,” Smith said, noting that he and players like Brodie Merrill, Jon Sullivan and himself are getting older. All played key roles in the win, along with younger defenders like Ethan O'Connor—also brought in at the trade deadline—and Jeremy Thompson.

Austin Staats is the youngest of the Chiefs and may have scored the most important goal of the game. Six Nations had pulled ahead for the first time in the game, taking a 7-6 lead when Dan Dawson connected at 4:57 of the third.

Shortly after the ensuing faceoff, Staats took a pass from Stephen Keogh, toe dragged the ball to elude one defender then drifted a quick overhand over another defender and just past Matt Vinc's right shoulder under the crossbar.

Dillon Ward accepts the Johnny Shooter Davis playoff MVP award.
(Photo: Tim Prothero)
Ward and the defence made their 8-6 advantage hold up for 10 minutes until Dhane Smith padded the lead at 15:23. That goal effectively sealed the deal, though Mark Steenhuis and Randy Staats would trade goals in the final few minutes.

Staats played like he didn't feel any pressure despite being such a young player (18 years, five months) on such a big stage. “Pressure comes along with the big games and a good player always wants to be in that pressure situation. If you don't like pressure situations you shouldn't be in this game,” Staats said.

He overcame not only pressure but getting banged up repeatedly during the series. At least four tiomes during the series he had to leave the floor and go to the dressing room for treatment, only to return and have an impact each time.

You do whatever you can to get a championship and I don't got one of those right now this summer, so I want to get one. I'll lay my body on the line for it,” Staats said.

If he gets one this summer, it will mark quite a run for the younger Staats. He won the Founders Cup Jr B championship in 2013 with the Rebels, the Minto Cup in '14 and '15 with the Arrows, and is seeking a Mann Cup this year.

Across the floor, the reality that they won't be hoisting the Mann Cup for the sixth time in a dozen years weighed heavily on the Lakers, no one more so than John Grant Jr, who had announced earlier in the year that this will be his final season of summer lacrosse. Knowing he was heading into his MSL twilight made the whole process emotional for Grant, one of the greatest players to ever appear in the league.

When you know it's your last one unless you win, it puts a lot of pressure to play well. I tried not to focus on that. I tried to do what I needed to do to help this team,” Grant said, fighting back tears at times. “There were points in the game where I did. I think I just wasn't able to do it. That's a good team on the other side. We didn't play well enough to win. That's what every one of us have to think about. Did we do everything we could? That's why we play this game. If was easy, everyone would do it. This one's going to hurt. My last two game sevens at home that I've been a part of we've lost. Not the way I wanted to end, for sure.”

Grant was referring to the MSL finals two years ago, when the Chiefs mounted a similar comeback to win on Peterborough's turf in the deciding game of the finals. But Grant wasn't think about either past glories or the 2014 series immediately after the game. He was simply disconsolate that he hadn't been able to deliver another championship to a franchise that retired his jersey and a hometown that awarded him the key to the city.

We didn't do what we needed to do,” Grant said. “I didn't do what I need to do to help this franchise win a game. It's going to haunt me forever.”

Teammate Shawn Evans, the league's regular season scoring leader and MVP, sounded haunted by what could have been as well.

I thought we had a great game tonight, the energy was there. We just couldn't outlast them in the third period. A couple of loose balls went the other way, they ended up in the back of the net and we couldn't recover from it,” Evans said. “They're a good team over there. It was a long series. It wasn't what we wanted but the guys battled hard and it's very disappointing. It's another Mann Cup that was a missed opportunity. That's a couple now that I think we should have had and we didn't. Those are the ones that sting and come back to haunt you. It definitely hurts right now and the more I keep talking, it hurts a little bit more.”

Evans suggested the 3-0 series lead may have left the Lakers a little complacent, not bringing the determination they needed to close the Chiefs out. “I think the will to win and veteran players,” he said. “I don't want to say that but I don't know if we were up 3-0 and thought it was going to get handed to us. Everyone was tasting next week and not realizing that they've got to put the effort in to get there. I thought we were more watching than playing.”

Kilgour said the Chiefs acquired a taste for winning the Mann Cup back to back in '13 and '14. “You win one, you're a real selfish person and you want two, three, four. We gave one away,” Kilgour said, referring to losing the MSL finals to the Lakers last year, then corrected himself right away.

No, we didn't give it away, Peterborough beat us. You lose four games. It wasn't luck. They won, all credit to them. But we were leading going into the third last year and we coughed it up. I felt we gave one away last year. The guys really wanted to come back with a vengeance this year. It took a little bit but we finally did.”

Now, after an intense series both physically and emotionally, the Chiefs will have to regroup, get some rest and get ready to take on the Burrards starting in five days. With the resilence and tenacity they showed in winning the MSL finals, it's a safe bet they'll be ready to go when the whistle blows for the Mann Cup.