By Marc Finch
The Ohio Machine (7-5) returns home to Selby stadium today … and it has one heck of a task at hand as the first place New York Lizards (10-2) are in town for a 7 p.m. showdown.
The Lizards (10-2) have locked up the No. 1 seed and the Machine (7-5) has clinched a playoff spot, but Ohio has yet to nail down the two seed for good. The Machine control its own destiny, but the next two games are against teams that are playoff bound as of this moment. Ohio lost to New York in the first week of the season, 14-8, but the team has changed a lot since then and today’s matchup could look very different.
The Machine offense was held to its lowest scoring performance of the year when it visited New York in Week 1, but the offense has not been held under 11 goals since. While the Machine has been playing much better since that first week, the Lizards are still one of the toughest, if not the toughest, teams to play in the MLL.
“New York is a great team, they’re a great opponent and I think with any competitor you want to play the best and you want to compete against the best,” Machine Vice President and head coach Bear Davis said.
Offensively, the Machine will be in an uphill battle as the Lizards are only giving up a little more than 11.5 goals per game. Ohio has managed 13.75 goals per game with eight of the goals being of the two-point variety, so someone’s average has to give. The Machine feels that it has done a good job targeting weaknesses and fixing problems throughout the season.
“I think that’s the journey of the season, finding out what your strengths/weaknesses are and how you can build upon your strengths and correct your weaknesses,” Davis said.
To create offense, the Machine will be looking at Marcus Holman, who leads the team with 33 goals this year, and rookie Jimmy Bitter, who has exploded onto the scene with 15 goals in his first five games. Those two players use their diverse set of skills to make differences in the game.
“Marcus plays with high energy, he rides hard, he’s probably one of the best riding attackmen in the league, and he puts a lot of pressure there,” Davis said. “Jimmy possesses a lot of different skills. I’ve always said this, and I think he’s pretty diverse in what he brings to the table.”
The Machine defense may have one of its most difficult games out in front of it this week. The Lizards average 15.25 goals per game this season, and they have seven players who have scored over 20 goals during the 2015 campaign.
Davis thinks keeping the ball away from the Lizards will be a key to defensive success today.
“If they’re not rested, it could be a very tough day,” Davis said. “I think the goal is to make sure that we do what we can to clear the ball; there’s a lot of ways to gain possession.”
When the offense has more possessions, the defense can remain rested and play to its best ability. The Machine has struggled this season with letting teams go on runs to open up later quarters in the game, and that is something that needs to be limited against the Lizards.
“It has been an issue for us, especially like the third quarter coming out of halftime; it has not been a strong feature of our team,” Davis said.
Keeping the defense rested and supporting Brian Phipps in the cage will be another key.
“It allows for them to dictate the other team’s offense and where they’re taking shots from so it helps Phipps make saves,” Davis said. “He’s not seeing the same shots when our defense is rested, and I think that goes a long way.”
WHAT TO WATCH
The Battle of the Gregs: Both the Machine and the Lizards have great faceoff guys this season. Greg Gurenlian of the Lizards wins 77.7 percent of his faceoffs and Greg Puskuldjian wins 54.5 percent of his. Keep an eye out for a tremendous battle at the faceoff X this Saturday.
One vs. Two: While the Lizards have locked up their No. 1 spot, the Machine is still playing to secure a home game in the playoffs. A win against the top team could be a tremendous help to the Machine’s playoff aspirations. This should be a great game as the MLL’s top two teams square off.
“It’s a tall order and it’s not one that we’ve been able to answer in franchise history,” Davis said. “That challenge is definitely on the table and we expect it to be a great game.”