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Alterna Cup Preview: VAN at CAL

Don’t count out the NLL’s reigning champion, the Calgary Roughnecks, especially at this point of the season.

With a win against the Vancouver Warriors on Friday, the Calgary Roughnecks will move to 6-7, the same record they had at one point during their run to the league’s 2019 title, the last Championship awarded due to the cancellation of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.

In other words, Calgary has the rest of the teams in the NLL right where they want them.

“In previous years we have had slow starts,” says Roughnecks goaltender Christian Del Bianco. “Sadly this year has been no different. We’ve been able to overcome it in years past and are primed to do it again.”

This year Calgary has been consistently inconsistent, alternating wins and losses since the start of the season.

There was also a three-game losing streak through a weird pandemic period of postponements and reschedulings throughout December and January when the Roughnecks went more than 40 days between games.

“The year we won [the championship in 2019] we just took it a game at a time,” Del Bianco says. “With that being said we’re not looking ahead to the playoffs a month from now, we’re looking at the Warriors this weekend.”

Fast forward to 2022 and Calgary is again at 5-7 and looking to move to 6-7 with a win over Vancouver at WestJet Field at Scotiabank Saddledome on Friday in the Sports Interaction Game of the Week on TSN (9pm ET/ESPN+).

A Roughnecks win would also leap them over both Panther City (6-8) and the Warriors (6-7) into the third guaranteed playoff spot in the West Conference. In 2019 Calgary also finished third in the West, once again proving lacrosse’s ever-present it’s-not-how-you-start it’s-how-you-finish axiom.

Friday’s game is also part of the all-Canadian Alterna Cup. The competition among all five Canadian clubs was created in partnership with Alterna Savings, the exclusive banking partner of the NLL in Canada. The Roughnecks (3-1) and Halifax (4-0) are the two teams still in contention for the Alterna Cup, which will be awarded to the squad from the north with the best winning percentage against other Canadian clubs. These two clubs will face each other next week on April 8 in what could be the deciding game for the Cup.

“We want to win every game: Alterna Cup, divisional or versus the East. It’s all the same,” says Del Bianco, a 2019 Second Team All-Pro who currently sports an 11.61 goals-against average and .765 save percentage. His career regular-season numbers are 11.13/.785.

“I think we have been hit with a bit of injuries and COVID protocol much like other teams throughout the year so some younger guys have got chances to play bigger roles. We’re hoping, as we get our full lineup back, that will pay dividends and make it easier for us to get the results that are needed.”

On his own journey to consistency this season Del Bianco is cool as a cucumber, much like his demeanor in net: “Overall just putting in the time practice-wise, trusting myself and trusting the guys in front of me. The rest will take care of itself. I don’t overthink it too much.”

Calgary lost to the Warriors earlier this season, giving up three power-play goals in an 11-10 setback on February 18. Vancouver’s power-play is currently second best in the league at 51.8% and led by rangy forward Keegan Bal (seventh in NLL scoring with 71 points), veteran Logan Schuss (47 points) and sniper Kyle Killen (30 goals).

“Obviously you want to avoid being shorthanded,” Del Bianco says. “But if we take penalties working [or] playing hard we can live with it. We just have to eliminate the ones that we can control.”

The Roughnecks will counter the Warriors’ dynamic extra-man offense with big stops from Del Bianco, whose career playoff numbers are better than his regular-season ones with a 10.17 goals-against average and .821 save percentage, as well as an all-round team game.

Calgary is led by rover Zach Currier, first in the league in both loose balls (162) and forced turnovers (37) who also has seven goals and a 57.0 faceoff percentage, and the offense is supplied for the most part by Jesse King (18th in NLL scoring with team-best 60 points), Curtis “Superman” Dickson (22 goals) and Tyler Pace (38 points).

The Warriors, meanwhile, have been consistently streaky this season, with alternating winning- and losing-streaks since the start of the season, and are currently on a three-game road losing streak.

Both Calgary and Vancouver enter Friday’s game with wins under their belts from last weekend, and are trying to keep things moving in the right direction. The Warriors also play this weekend at home in Rogers Arena against Albany on Saturday (10pm ET/ESPN+/TSN.ca).

Back to Roughnecks goalie Del Bianco on what in part helps him maintain his cool inside the crease; he is somewhat active on social media (@cdelbianco35), giving a bit of an irreverent inside look into the life of an NLL player.

“I get a good chuckle out of social media,” he says. “I don’t take it very serious, as anyone who follows me can probably tell.”

But what Del Bianco does take seriously is being solid and steady between the pipes.

Calgary has the championship banners and rings from 2019 to prove it, and the Roughnecks are once again looking to ride off into the sunset at the end of the season with both the Alterna Cup and the NLL crown.