Ask coach John Tucker why the Thunder got swept by Philadelphia in the National Lacrosse League championship series, and he'll give you a simple reply: goaltending.
So swiftly exit Derek Collins and enter Chris Sanderson.
In its biggest off-season move, the Thunder traded Collins, last year's starter, and drafted Sanderson in the first round as the league's fourth overall pick.
"In our opinion, it was the difference between the championship and second place," Tucker said. "And we knew we had to address that."
Last season, the Thunder racked up an NLL-best 15.3 goals per game but allowed 13.3 goals, which ranked fourth in the seven-team league. Collins finished fifth in the NLL with a 13.12 goals-against average and allowed a league-high 141 goals.
Collins couldn't consistently turn away the perimeter shots, forcing the defense to apply pressure 20 feet out.
That provided the opposition space to bang the ball inside for high-percentage opportunities.
"That was our main concern after the season," Tucker said. "We needed to find someone to stop shots. We allowed too many easy goals, too many cheap goals."
But the Thunder didn't have a first-round selection in the draft and had to sacrifice scoring to upgrade its goaltending. So it traded Chris Panos, its fourth-leading scorer, to Buffalo for the chance to land Sanderson.
Although Sanderson wasn't an All-American in the field game at the University of Virginia, he was considered a prime NLL draft pick. Sanderson, from Orangeville, Ontario, has played indoor lacrosse for 17 years, beginning at age 4.
College lacrosse fans were often critical of Sanderson despite a respectable .615 career save percentage for the Cavaliers and being just one of four Virginia goalkeepers to start in three NCAA tournaments.
And Sanderson admits feeling uncomfortable at times in the field game. Frequently showing his indoor background, he had the tendency to drop down to smother balls and had trouble finding the flow of the ball-control outdoor style.
"I battled with my concentration all four years at Virginia," Sanderson said.
Said Virginia coach Dom Starsia: "Chris didn't steal that many games for us but he was a leader and played solidly for us. There was something about Chris that you felt you had to stick with him, and he did get better."
The one aspect Sanderson will bring from the field game is the ability to communicate. The NLL is dominated by Canadian goalkeepers, but few interact with their defenders.
At this summer's World Championships for field lacrosse, Sanderson pulled together Team Canada's defense by barking out instructions that could be heard high up in the stands, which was a characteristic absent on its national team in previous years. He became an integral part in the Canadians' runner-up finish and was named the All-World goalkeeper.
Now the 5-foot-7 Sanderson returns to his natural environment, where he expects to make a difference on defense as well as offense.
"I like to be involved in the offense," Sanderson said. "I got after loose balls around the crease and will start easy opportunities the other way. With the speed and athleticism on this team, it's a huge advantage."
"I'm obviously excited about the great opportunity that the Thunder has given me to step right in. Hopefully, I can make an impact."
January 2 -- Rochester, 7: 30 p.m.; 9 -- Toronto, 7: 35 p.m.; 16 -- at Buffalo, 8 p.m.; 23 -- at New York, 7: 30 p.m.; 30 -- Philadelphia, 7: 35 p.m. February 5 -- at Syracuse, 7: 35 p.m.; 12 -- New York, 8 p.m.; 20 -- NLL All-Star Game, TBA; 27 -- Buffalo, 7: 35 p.m. March 13 -- at Philadelphia, 7: 30 p.m.; 27 -- at Rochester, 7: 35 p.m. April 2 -- at Toronto, 7: 35 p.m.; 3 -- Syracuse, 7: 35 p.m.; 17 -- NLL semifinals, TBA; 24 -- NLL championship, TBA.
Opponent: Rochester Knighthawks
Site: Baltimore Arena
Outlook: It's a rematch of last year's National Lacrosse League semifinal on April 19, when the Thunder edged Rochester, 15-14. Gary Gait had four goals and four assists as the Thunder scored 10 goals in the second quarter to advance to its first league final in five years. It's also the season opener for the Thunder, which has won its first game the past two years by a combined score of 40-24. The Knighthawks lost their season opener last week to New York, 12-11. Jeremy Hollenbeck led Rochester with two goals and two assists.
Pub Date: 1/02/99