The Griffins know their enemies

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CURT SMITH

of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

ROCHESTER—A closely balanced pennant race…The resurgence of several of the National Lacrosse League’s most prominent players…Officiating disputes involving high-scoring forward Rick Dudley and coach Morley Kells.

All these events and more have marked the Rochester Griffins’ inaugural season, a year in which they have become one of the NLL’s pivotal clubs.

Oh, other teams have had distinguishing features, too.  Montreal has moved into playoff contention following a mediocre start.  Maryland and Toronto have slipped back into the NLL’s rear guard after several promising weeks.

Philadelphia has emerged as one of the league’s sure-fire successes, both at the box office and on the playing floor, while Syracuse has rebounded to become the NLL’s comeback story of the year, shrugging off an 0-8 start to challenge for a playoff berth.

But even in the midst of all these events, the Griffins have hardly gone unnoticed.  First, of course, there has been the NLL race, a season-long collision between Rochester and Philadelphia which has developed into one of the league’s most competitive rivalries.

For over two months the NLL lead has been the exclusive property of the Griffins and Wings.  First place has changed hands two and three times a week.

On several occasions the lead has even passed from one club to another the same evening, with first the Griffins winning to grab the lead, then the Wings winning to recapture their edge.

“Philly is the team we’ll have to beat,” predicts Merv Marshall, the Griffin goalie who has fast become one of the league’s best, allowing among the fewest goals and leading the NLL [goalies] in assists.

“It seems like whenever we play them, neither team has an easy time of it.  Every game is a struggle for both clubs.  We both should stay close to one another during the regular season.  And if we meet in the playoffs, it should really be some series.”

Marshall’s estimate of the balance between Philadelphia and Rochester is well-founded.  In the first six games between the clubs this season, only one has been decided by more than three goals.

Even if the game wasn’t close (10-5 Wing victory), the Griffins were in contention until early in the final period.  That game, on August 4, propelled the Wings back into first place and kept the Griffins engulfed in their worst offensive slump of the year.

The cubs have split the series, 3-3.  Philadelphia has drawn consistently well at the Spectrum for Griffins games there while two of Rochester’s four largest crowds have come against the Wings.

And the Griffin-Wing rivalry seems to extend into the September playoffs, too.  With both clubs virtually assured of grabbing the top two regular-season positions, chances increase that they will collide for the NLL playoff crown in the final series.

“If both teams play like they can, they both should make the finals,” says Rochester’s coach Kells.  “Anything can happen, of course, but both we and Philly have the talent to go that far.”

To even sweep past the semi-final round series, which like the finals is a best-of-seven affair, the Griffins will have to avoid a scoring slump like the one which plagued them in early August.

Rochester began a four-game week by losing to Montreal, 14-9, a defeat which prompted Toronto coach Jim Bishop to say the Griffins played like “sissies on the road.”

The Griffins then went to Maple Leaf Gardens where they gained their just revenge, routing the Tomahawks, 29-10, in their largest offensive splurge of the season.

The Griffins then followed, however, with two of their most lacklustre performances so far, bowing to Syracuse, 19-11, and the Wings, 10-5, both at home.

“We can straighten two things out,” insists Bill Hoculik, the forward who has been one of Rochester’s most consistent players.  “We’ve outshooting every team we play.  All we have to do is get going in for rebounds, we have to finish up our scoring chances.”

Hoculik has helped keep the Griffins in contention.  So have other players like Al Gordaneer, Kevin Parsons, Barry Bartlett, Brian Keegan, Glen Neuman and Jim Magee.

But the limelight has focused most intensely on Marshall, Dudley and Dave Wilfong.

Marshall has kept the Griffins in game after with his saves of close-range shots.  Dudley has become one of the NLL’s leading goal-scorers.  And Wilfong has quietly but steadily developed into Rochester’s most important clutch shooter.

Through 21 games, Wilfong has scored 54 goals, including a streak of 14 in three games.  Even more, despite missing five games because of a commitment to the world field lacrosse championships in Australia.  Wilfong has become the player Kells counts upon to score when the Griffins need a crucial goal.

“He’s as easy to handle as pie, a great player and example,” Kells says.  If we ever win the championship on an overtime goal, it’ll be Wilfong who scores it.  He’s really a clutch player.”

Wilfong’s emergence as a potent scorer has taken on even more importance because of Dudley’s increasing visits to the penalty box.

Dudley has compiled more penalty minutes than any player in the NLL.  Four times he has been ejected from games; on four occasions he has been slapped with major misconduct penalties.

With Dudley more and more on the bench or out of the game, the offensive burden has fallen upon Wilfong.  And though Kells has been pleased with Wilfong’s response, he is far from satisfied with the conditions surrounding Dudley’s penalties.

“The refereeing in this league is so bad, it’s futile to talk about it,” Kells says.  “What more can I say?  Obviously, Dudley is hurting himself and us by getting into fights sometimes, but I can see where he becomes provoked by some of the calls we’re seeing.”

For more than two months Kells has been urging the NLL to upgrade its minor officiating programs, insisting that the NLL will need more top-quality referees next year when expansion occurs.

GRIFFIN GRAFFITI:         The Griffins have instituted a three-star selection systems at their home games, similar to the format used by the National Hockey League…Rochester leads the league in goals scored.  The recent acquisition of Brian Wilson, the league’s 14th leading scorer, from Toronto isn’t expected to dampen the offence either.  Wilson was traded for Dave Johnston.

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