If you have only watched the New York Lizards play lacrosse for the past month, the fact they struggled on offense for the first half of this season would probably surprise you.
While the Lizards have won five of their last six MLL games and are now in contention for a home playoff game, goals were hard to come by early.
In their first seven games, the Lizards averaged 11.3 goals per game, with a .265 shooting percentage and .597 shot-on-goal rate, third from the bottom in Major League Lacrosse in all three categories. As a result, the Lizards started 3-4 with a minus-4 goal differential.
The second half has been different. The Lizards averaged 14.3 goals in their next six games, a pace which would lead the league if sustained for a full season. The team has improved its record to 8-5 and its goal differential to plus-10 and can host a home playoff game with a five-goal win Saturday against Denver and a Rochester win over Boston.
"We made a big trade," said midfielder JoJo Marasco, pointing to the addition of midfielder Michael Kimmel as one of the catalysts for the offensive improvement. The playmaker arrived from Chesapeake on June 27 and ranks second on the team in assists with seven, despite playing in just five games with the Lizards.
Star attack Rob Pannell continues to play a major role for the offense. The Smithtown native leads the Lizards in both goals (31) and assists (20) and is tied for third in MLL in points with 51.
Marasco, who has scored 20 goals himself, also said better ball movement has made a difference.
"We distribute the ball a lot more [now]," Marasco said. "Our offense is always flowing."
During the first half of the season, the Lizards averaged four assists per game compared with 6.3 in the second half. The Lizards' improved passing also has raised shot quality -- .641 shot-on-goal rate in the second half (Ohio leads the league at .644).
Tommy Palasek (26), Max Seibald (17) and Ned Crotty (16) join Pannell and Marasco as the team's double-digit goal scorers.
Combined with a defense that has conceded the second fewest goals in MLL and the league's best faceoff success rate, the improved offense has put the Lizards in the thick of the league's championship hunt.
Their championship prospects can get another shot in the arm with a decisive win on Saturday at Hofstra's Shuart Stadium. New York is one game behind Denver and Rochester, which are tied for first place, with the top two teams in the league earning a home semifinal game.
A Lizards loss to Denver would relegate New York to the third seed, as would a win by four goals or less. In the latter scenario, New York and Denver both would finish with 9-5 records and will have split the season series. The next tiebreaker is combined margin of victory in games between the two teams, and Denver beat the Lizards by five in June.
If the Lizards win by five goals or more and Rochester defeats Boston, the Lizards would earn the second seed and host Denver in a semifinal at Hofstra.
However, if Rochester loses, the Lizards will need to win by at least seven to earn a home playoff game (Denver would remain ahead of New York in point differential in games between the three teams). Should Rochester lose, an 11-goal win by the Lizards would give them the No. 1 seed.