Don’t look now but we’ve got a two-horse race shaping up in the East for the final National Lacrosse League playoff spot. At one point the Rock looked as if they would cruise into the No.-3 slot and the Wings appeared down and out. However, stumbles and bumbles by both clubs now have them running almost neck-and-neck. The Wings came into their weekend tilt against the Rock having lost six of their last seven. But Toronto wasn’t in much better shape, dropping four of their last five. So when Philly eked out a 14-13 victory they set the stage for what should be a thrilling stretch drive over the final five games of the season.
With the win, Philly improved to 4-9 and the Rock fell to 5-8. As well, both teams have Minny nipping at their heels at 3-9 after the Swarm’s overtime victory against Buffalo on Sunday.
Tracey Kelusky has played in a lot of big NLL games, including winning two Champion’s Cups. So without any added hyperbole, the first-year Wings forward — who scored twice in the victory over the Rock — agreed the win against Toronto was a big deal for a regular-season matchup.
“Every weekend for the last four or five weekends we’ve been going in saying our fate is still in our own hands,” said Kelusky. “Heading in against Toronto it was very evident if we lost that one we were shooting ourselves in the foot. We had to put our record to that point behind us, wipe the slate clean and just focus on Toronto and going out and playing and getting that win.”
On paper, the Wings have a slightly easier sprint to the finish. They play sub-.500 teams in Colorado, who they face twice, and Vancouver. They also play the Roughnecks and have another pivotal tilt with the Rock.
Toronto, on the other hand, plays the juggernaut Rush, the Bandits as well as Minny and Vancouver and, of course, Philly. However, anyone who follows this league knows that records aren’t always indicative of how good a team is. Sounds counterintuitive but true. In a nine-team loop, you can’t take anyone lightly.
“You know and I know any team can win on any night — any given Sunday,” said Kelusky. “That’s the great thing about this league, the parity. We know we can’t worry about the other teams or the schedule, we have to worry about ourselves. We need to keep improving, mature a bit as a group and play the best lacrosse we can.”
Besides, not to say the top teams in the league won’t be motivated in their final games but you sure as heck know clubs such as Colorado, Minny and even Vancouver will be playing for respect, jobs and their playoff lives.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” explained Kelusky. “Toronto may be playing some better teams in the standings but we’re going to be playing teams that are desperate. Desperate lacrosse is teams with their backs against the wall. That’s who we’re facing down the stretch. That’s who we are quite frankly, too.”
As with every season, there have been tons of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ this year for the Wings. Those could, would, shoulda moments. After yet another off-season overhaul that balanced out what has been a franchise known as The American Experiment for years, Canadians such as Kelusky, Ryan Ward and Kyle Buchanan were brought in on offence, giving the club a personnel make-up more in line with the rest of the league.
They added more young talent and made a switch between the pipes, giving the starting role to Evan Kirk after he was acquired from the Swarm. But while the club looks more balanced from top to bottom, their record to this point of the season doesn’t look much different from years past.
“Success is an indicator of wins and losses,” said Kelusky. “And I look at our record and we’re not on the right side of .500. We’re quite a ways below that. We’re still kicking ourselves on some of them — I know I’m kicking myself. We lost a couple to Minny we probably shouldn’t have. We lost a tight one to Buff in overtime. We could very easily be sitting at 7-6 or 6-7 at worst. But it is what it is.”
A pessimist — or some would say a realist — can see the odds aren’t great for the Wings to make the playoffs. And even if they get to the dance, what chance do they have to win a game? Or the East? Or the title? If Vegas books took NLL bets, the odds would be awful for Philly.
As a veteran leader, Kelusky’s job is to help lead the young Wings team as much as it is to put balls in the net.
He says he’s told the team the story of his Roughnecks highly improbable 2004 Champion’s Cup run. Below .500, they won some games down the stretch to finish 9-7 and get the last playoff berth in the West. They went on the road to play the favoured San Jose Stealth and won by a goal. They then beat the heavily favoured Mammoth in Denver to win the West.
Thanks to upsets in the East, they hosted the Champion’s Cup at the Saddledome and beat the favoured Bandits. Calgary went from expansion franchise to league champs in three seasons. The script would have made for a lovely Disney movie.
In short, Kelusky’s message to his teammates is simple: stranger things have happened.
“The record doesn’t matter once you get to the playoffs,” said Kelusky. “You can win 12 or 13 or 14 games and then it’s one and done. It’s tough to turn the ship around in one year and be successful. I’m hoping we can do that and I’m optimistic we can do that. Obviously our record doesn’t speak in favour of that right now but that’s our game plan.”
QUICK STICKS: Garrett Billings is running away with the scoring race. After collecting three goals and 10 points in Toronto’s weekend loss to Philly he now has 92 points, leading Cody Jamieson (71) and Shawn Evans (70) by a hefty margin. Billings has played one more game — 13 to 12 for Jamieson and Evans — but will be impossible to catch if he keeps up his current scoring pace … Edmonton is just making winning look easy now. It’s almost unfair to the rest of the league at this point … You could see the relief on the face of Lewis Ratcliff after he scored his second of three goals Friday night a week after being a healthy scratch. He added three helpers for six points, tying his season high for points in a game. The three goals (on 14 shots) was his biggest goal-scoring output this campaign as well … Folks always seem quick to heap criticism on Mike Poulin if Calgary loses or if he falters at all, but rarely does he get credit when its due. Friday night was one of those games. It wasn’t his best performance of the season but Poulin was solid making 45 saves in Calgary’s 13-8 win over Vancouver. The Stealth actually outshot the Riggers 53-49 in the game … Stephan Leblanc was held without a goal for the second game in a row. In Toronto’s two recent losses to Minny and Philly, he’s collected just four assists. However, his 30 goals still have him second in league scoring to Dane Dobbie (35) … At the other end of the spectrum, Curtis Dickson scored three goals on Friday and has 14 in his last four games … Speaking of goals, Colin Doyle is leading with 10 power play makers this season … Nice night for Rush rookie Adrian Sorichetti in the win over Buffalo. In just his second NLL game, he scored his first goal — and then added two more for good measure. First goal and first hat trick in the same game is pretty impressive … Was surprised to see Callum Crawford, who scored the game-winner for the Swarm in OT this weekend, also leads the league with four short-handed goals. Dickson, Steve Priolo and Chris Corbeil are tied at second with three shorties each.The assistant managing editor of the Calgary Sun, Pilson began covering the NLL when the Roughnecks started in 2000. The longtime lacrosse player has been contributing to Inside Lacrosse ever since. Email him at email@example.com or go to CalgarySun.com.
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