The Calgary Roughnecks host the Vancouver Stealth at Scotiabank Saddledome for a Canadian rivalry matchup live on TSN1 & TSN GO in Canada and WatchESPN in the U.S. on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET.
While the Stealth seek a total bounceback year, the defending West Division champion Roughnecks are looking to start their season off on the right foot after coming up just shy of NLL glory last season.
“The one word I would say about last season was ‘devastating,’” said Roughnecks head coach Curt Malawsky. “To be 2:14 away from winning a championship is a tough pill to swallow.”
After all, the Roughnecks lost 3-2 to the Rochester Knighthawks in the third and decisive game of the Champion’s Cup last season. But Malawsky does feel it’ll prove to be a learning experience for his team.
“Obviously, there is a sour taste in our mouth,” he said. “Despite the same group of guys we’ve got back, it’s a brand new season and they’ve got to create their own identity “
“What we’re really taking from last year is the experience of getting there. We honestly believe we know what we need to do to get to the top of the mountain and we’re going to slowly start climbing that come Saturday night.”
Roughnecks captain Andrew McBride, now in his 13th season with the ‘Necks, has experienced all the difficulties the National Lacrosse League has to offer and couldn’t agree more with his coach.
“We’ve really got to take that as a learning experience,” he said. “Take some of those lessons about playing in close games, playing in pressure situations and try to transfer them over to this year.”
The Roughnecks won all four contests against the Stealth last season, but Malawsky knows Vancouver made some big moves during the off-season.
“They made a lot of positive changes,” he said. “There a lot better team defensively, I think they got some young legs, they may not be as experienced, but I think as a whole, a lot of things coming out of there are very positive.”
The Stealth signed all six of their 2014 draft picks after going 4-14 last year and missing the playoffs, while the ‘Necks ended their 2014 season with a 12-6 record.
“This is a hungry team (Vancouver) coming in here with a whole different dynamic,” remarked Malawsky. “Historically over the years, in Calgary, they like to play there. They like to play in front of a big crowd and they’ve upset us a few times at home, especially in the Western Final a couple years back. So we’re very motivated and we can’t look by anybody.”
While the Stealth may have made major changes to their line-up, Calgary has virtually left most of their roster untouched, and McBride says now it’s up to the players to prove themselves.
“It showed a lot of confidence in our coaching staff, in our general manager and organization that we kept most of the same group together,” he said. “But it’s going to be an exciting challenge for us, and I think the guys understand the little nuances it takes to be successful. Hopefully we can take those lessons we learned last year and put them into place at the start of this season.”
An announced total of 11,187 Roughnecks fans showed up to the Saddledome for a preseason game against the Rush a couple weeks ago, and McBride says he looks forward to seeing even more on Saturday night.
“Starting at home in front of our crowd, which turned into one of the best home floor advantages in the NLL, is absolutely huge for us,” he said. “We take a lot of pride trying to defend the home turf and it’ll be a good opportunity to start that on Saturday night.”
Last year, the Stealth suffered through a 4-14 season and on the outside looking in when the National Lacrosse League playoffs began while Calgary went to the Champion’s Cup Finals.
But that was last year, as the Stealth can point out, as the runnerups in the 2013 Champion’s Cup themselves.
The Roughnecks were up by a pair of goals with 2:14 to play in the Champion’s Cup final, only to see Rochester score three unanswered goals.
“The one word I would use to describe last year would be devastating,” said Calgary coach Curt Malawsky. “To be 2:14 away from winning a title is a tough pill to swallow.
“Obviously there is a sour taste in our mouths.”
The Stealth went 0-4 against Calgary and were 1-8 on the road.
“Last year was a tough year, we just feel some of the guys had off years,” admitted Dan Perreault, who begins his first season as the Stealth head coach. He previously was the team’s offensive coach.
“Some of the returning guys are hungry, you can see it in their eyes,” he said. “They came into camp in great shape and have been working hard.”
The Stealth return 11 players from last year’s squad, but made some key offseason additions, most notably adding Johnny Powless and Joel McCready in a draftday trade.
The acquisitions should give the Stealth more depth on offense — they were the second lowest scoring team in the league — to boost what was an anemic attack.
On defense, the team will be without captain Kyle Sorensen, who had off-season knee surgery. To fill the void, they added Rory Smith and Tyler Burton.
Another defender, Curtis Hodgson — who has played the most games for the Stealth in their history — will wear the ‘C’.
Hodgson said the key is to incorporate the new bodies.
“We have to play as a group to be successful,” he said, adding that the team has a tough test in their opener. “Calgary, in my opinion, probably has the best offensive group in the league. They work really well together and have good chemistry and have been playing together a long time.”
Perreault added that while the Stealth may have several new faces, they players they have brought in are not short on experience.
“A lot of the new guys, they do have experience,” he said. “Our challenge is to make sure are all on the same page.”
“We just have to take it one step at a time and not get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Malawsky figures the Stealth should return to form this season after a down year. The club won the Champion’s Cup in 2010 and was runnerup in both 2011 and 2013. “They made a lot of positive changes; they are a lot better defensively and they have some young legs,” he said.
“They might not be as experienced, but I think as a whole…there are a lot of positive things coming out with the additions and the changes that they made.”
Story by Kassidy Collins (@RoughnecksBeat) & Gary Ahuja (@VanStealthBeat) for NLL.com.