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LACROSSE

Boston Cannons head to Denver for MLL championship weekend

For the first time in four years, the Boston Cannons earned a berth in the Major League Lacrosse playoffs after a 9-7 regular season.

With MLL more balanced than it has been in years, the Cannons surged to a 5-2 start but went 2-3 down the stretch, including a heartbreaking loss at home to Dallas in their season finale two weekends ago.

One of those late-season losses came on the road at the hands of Friday’s semifinal opponent: the reigning champions and playoff hosts, the Denver Outlaws. Boston faces Denver in the second semifinal Friday, after the Chesapeake Bayhawks and Atlanta Blaze face off in the first. The winners play Sunday in the MLL title game. The semifinals are at the University of Denver, the final in Commerce City, Colo.

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A 22-9 loss to Denver Aug. 31 was a wake-up call for Boston, which had subdued the Outlaws, 16-13, in a trip to Denver earlier in the month.

“Any season has its ebbs and flows, and when you face adversity, you learn more about yourself as a team,” said Cannons coach Sean Quirk. “In that second game, we got away from playing team lacrosse. So we’ve just got to get back to that. The guys, I think, are ready to go.”

The keys for the Cannons this season have been limiting turnovers and winning races to ground balls.

Ground balls will be especially key in the semifinals because the Outlaws boast the top faceoff man in the league in Max Adler, a product of Bentley University. Adler led MLL with a 58.3 percent success rate at the X, including 52.9 percent (54 for 102) in three games against Boston.

One positive the Cannons could take from their drubbing by Denver in August was their ability to neutralize Adler and win faceoffs.

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“He’s gotten better and better each year he’s been in the league,” said Quirk. “Our wing play has got to be good, and we just have to keep trying to wear him down at the X.”

The responsibility for creating those turnovers and winning ground balls lies with the defensive unit. This season, the Cannons’ transition game has improved as a result of long stick midfielder Ryland Rees getting involved in pursuit of the ball.

Goalkeeper Nick Marrocco also has helped push the Cannons into the attack with slick transition.

“Marrocco has the ability to make those routine saves, but he also steals a bunch,” said Quirk. “His clearing ability has really helped us on the back end.”

When the Cannons have the ball, they boast the second-best scoring offense in MLL. Leading scorer Mark Cockerton tied for second in the league with 43 goals.

In his seventh season in the league, second with Boston, Cockerton is one of the veterans Quirk credits, along with Zed Williams, with helping energize the team at both ends of the field. Those two, along with Connor O’Hara, scored more than 25 goals this season and helped diversify the attack.

“We’re pretty diverse in terms of who can step up and make us successful,” said Quirk. “Cockerton is an especially prolific scorer and is very dynamic in creating offense. He gets a lot of those secondary assists that don’t count in lacrosse, and goalkeepers have a tough time reading his shot.”

The primary assists mostly come from Will Sands. The second-year attackman, who had his rookie year cut short by a hand injury, came alive with 32 assists this season, third in MLL.

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“He has incredible vision, a feed-first/score-second type of player,” said Quirk. “He has intangible vision to see where the second sliding player will be before he makes his move. That’s unique for an attackman.”

Playoff format changes

For the first time since 2013, the MLL playoffs will be played in a “final four” format, with all three games in one city on the same weekend. Denver was chosen as host, with MLL commissioner Sandy Brown citing a number of factors, including weather, tradition, and the growth of lacrosse in that market.

“We wanted to create a festival-like atmosphere to celebrate the sport of lacrosse and MLL,” said Brown. “We wanted to experiment, and we feel this creates a lot more buzz.”

Leaguewide attendance increased for the first time since 2011, and that includes a 9 percent increase in the Boston market, including two home sellouts at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Quincy.

“We had a number of real wins this year,” said Brown. “What [owner] Rob Hale has done in Boston has made for a great experience for the fans and players and a great model for the rest of the league.”

MLL playoff schedule

Semifinals

Friday, Oct. 4

at Peter Barton Stadium, Denver

(seeds in parentheses)

(4) Atlanta Blaze vs. (1) Chesapeake Bayhawks, 7 p.m. (ESPNews); (3) Boston Cannons vs. (2) Denver Outlaws, 10 p.m. (ESPNews).

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Final

Sunday, Oct. 6

Steinfeld Cup Championship

at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City, Colo.

Winner of first semifinal vs. winner of second semifinal, 1 p.m. (ESPN2)


Dan Shulman can be reached at dan.shulman@globe.com; follow him on Twitter @DanielRShulman.