In their third year in Major League Lacrosse, the Atlanta Blaze are on a verge of going somewhere they have never been — the playoffs.
Having reeled off four straight wins to put itself in this position after losing five straight at midseason, Atlanta (7-6) will host the Denver Outlaws in tonight’s regular-season finale at Fifth Third Bank Stadium, with a win securing that playoff spot.
Atlanta, Denver and the New York are in a three-way tie for third in MLL behind Dallas and Chesapeake, which have already clinched two of the league’s four playoff berths.
Getting to this point was not easy for the Blaze.
The Blaze beat Charlotte 16-10 on June 30 to stop their losing streak, then followed with a 13-10 win over Ohio, 13-12 win over Chesapeake and a 16-13 win last week at Florida to set up their must-win match against Denver.
“Our guys have had their backs against the wall for four weeks,” first-year Blaze coach Liam Banks said. “We knew we had to win out going into the playoffs. We have an incredible opportunity (today) to make our fans proud and make ourselves proud. We’re excited about the opportunity.”
If Denver has an advantage tonight, it would be its offense. The Outlaws have scored a league-best 210 points this season, with the Blaze at 174. Defensively, the teams are about even, with the Outlaws yielding one more point than the Blaze, 170-169.
“Denver is an excellent team,” Banks said. “They move the ball well, have great shooters in the midfield, and we will need to do our best to slow down their transition lacrosse.”
Atlanta’s five-game losing streak had much to do with getting its rookies in sync. Now, the Blaze are peaking and jelling at the best possible time.
Banks has preached unselfishness, with the rookies and veterans believing in one another essential to winning.
Attackman Christian Cuccinello has stood out among the Blaze’s rookie class this season. A fourth-round pick out of Villanova in April, Cuccinello is third on the team with 25 points, totaling 14 goals and 11 assists in only eight games.
Midfielder Connor Kelly, a first-round pick from Maryland, was named MLL’s rookie of the week after compiling three assists in Atlanta’s last win over Florida. He also had two goals against Chesapeake on July 26 -- with one being a 2-pointer -- and tacked on two more goals against Ohio on July 23.
“We’ve had opportunities over the course of the season to introduce a lot of rookies, mixed in with a lot of veterans,” Banks said. “Our guys are jelling on and off the field, which is good for our organization. We introduced a lot of rookies in the middle of the season.”
The performances of the team’s three captains -- attackman Kevin Rice, long stick midfielder and former Walton High School star Scott Ratliff and goalkeeper Adam Ghitelman -- will also be crucial tonight.
Rice leads the Blaze with 31 goals and 26 assists, while Ratliff has seven and four assists. Ghitelman has made 99 saves on the season.