In spite of an 18-to-7 disadvantage at the face-off X, the Denver Outlaws were able to hold the Rochester Rattlers to eight points (with four coming via garbage time two-pointers). It was the best outing of the season by one of the league’s unsung defensive units.
Everything was clicking. Finn Sullivan held Jordan Wolf scoreless. Jack Kelly saved 20 shots (83.3%). Short-stick defensive midfielders Greg Downing, Noah Molnar and Nick Ossello didn’t just neutralize Rochester’s midfield; they dominated the matchup, causing a combined five turnovers. And when the Rattlers faced end line restarts with low time on the shot clock, the Outlaws sunk into an impenetrable zone defense.
The Outlaws have mixed in zone all season depending on the opponent, but don’t expect to see much (if any) on Saturday. The Ohio Machine offense is full of zone beaters. Opponents rarely dared to throw zone at an offense that led MLL converting 39.5% of extra-man opportunities. The ingredients required to cook up an extra-man offense – inside finishers, outside shooters, quick sticks, passing vision – are also part of the recipe for beating a zone.
The Rattlers lacked those ingredients. During the Denver-Rochester semifinal, one MLL coach mentioned that if you can force the Rattlers into multiple passes following a dodge and slide, then the advantage tilts toward the defense. The numbers back it up: Rochester shoots 33.0% off one-pass shots and only 29.0% off shots preceded by two or more passes. To beat the Machine – who shoots 33.2% after one pass and 35.8% after two or more – the Outlaws will need to tweak their defensive gameplan.
Down the stretch, some of the Machine’s best offensive possessions have involved Peter Baum inverting at X. The former collegiate attackman shot 7-for-15 (46.7%) with six assists and only one turnover when inverting at X this season. The Florida Launch looked to flush the ball from Baum’s crosse as soon as possible, and while the Launch covered up the crease well, the Machine found ways to capitalize.
When Baum is threading these types of skip passes, good luck. The Launch covered up Mark Cockerton in the hole and Connor Cannizzaro on the backside pipe. Baum managed to find the farthest man from the ball and hit him with a pass that sent the Launch scrambling back out to the perimeter.
Head coach Bear Davis mentioned in his postgame interview that the Machine made adjustments at halftime to give their feeders easier looks against the Launch’s quick-to-slide defense. Adjacent outlet options popped from the crease, presenting Baum with lower risk reads. Here, Marcus Holman helps Baum move the ball from the strong side to the weak side in a hurry.
Even when the defense is slower to slide, the Machine manufacture quality catch-and-shoot looks. This matchup – Cannizzaro dodging Matt Dunn – is one that the Rattlers have no intention of sliding to. They will let their top defender play on an island against any attackman in the league. But watch what happens while Holman pops (similarly to the last clip) inside on the crease: Tom Schreiber seals Mark Cockerton’s man, freeing Cockerton – who led Ohio with 28 catch-and-shoot goals – for a stepdown shot.
Generating open shots for Cockerton (35.4% catch-and-shoot), Holman (36.8%) and Cannizzaro (50.0%) down low is crucial to the Machine’s success. Seals and unpredictable off-ball movement helps create that. Everyone on this team has shooting range; they’re all as dangerous popping from the crease as they are sealing for a teammate to do the same.
The Machine relies on assisted goals more than any team in the league. Off the dodge, Ohio shot 24.3% (worst in MLL); Denver opponents shot an even uglier 22.6% (lowest dodge-to-shoot percentage allowed in MLL). They may struggle to score off the dodge, but none of them struggle to create their own shot. For defenses, the threat of a shot is often enough to warrant a slide. When an athlete like Jake Bernhardt is isolated on a short-stick, a shot is imminent unless a slide is sent quickly.
The Machine midfielders – especially Baum (29.3% off the dodge) and Schreiber (26.7%) – are the biggest one-on-one threats. If Denver bumps another pole up to the midfield like they did in the 2016 MLL Championship, then the dodging duties may fall on Holman, Cannizzaro and Cockerton. Whoever is dodging will have his head up, looking for a teammate’s shot rather than his own. This offense is built on ball movement – and off-ball movement. Assisted goals will be more important than ever for the Machine this weekend.