A quick start, a fast pace and another gritty game on the teal turf carpet of WestJet Field at Scotiabank Saddledome.
That’s what to expect on Saturday night as Mitch Jones and the Vancouver Warriors cross the Canadian Rockies to collide with Zach Currier and the Calgary Roughnecks in the NLL Game of the Week on TSN (9:30 pm ET/ESPN+).
“Quick starts are always a point of focus in this league,” says Jones, the Warriors’ team leader in assists (4), points (5), shots on goal (10) and loose balls (11) during Vancouver’s season-opening 19-8 loss at Toronto.
“Obviously we didn’t have one last week and we are looking to improve this week. That being said, the NLL is a game of runs. We need to be prepared for anything and keep our focus on executing a game plan for 60 minutes.”
For Currier and the Roughnecks, it’s their 2022-23 season- and home-opener after a bye in Week 1.
“Every game in this league matters whether it’s Game 1 or Game 18,” says left-hander Currier, who led the NLL in loose balls (237) and forced turnovers (62) last season on his way to winning the 2022 Transition Player of the Year award.
“This is a big game, a divisional matchup that could have playoff implications down the road. We need to come out and have a great start to the season against a team that will be coming in with a chip on their shoulder.”
For Jones, Saturday’s game in Calgary is his second straight after missing all but the first four last season with a foot injury. In those games played in 2021-22, Jones recorded 12 goals and 26 points.
During the shortened 2019-2020 season, Jones displayed MVP-type form and was sitting second in league scoring with 28 goals and 74 points in 13 games before the season shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The injury is 100% behind me,” Jones says. “I am grateful to be healthy and competing with my teammates. I enjoy being in the game as opposed to watching from the sidelines last season.”
The Warriors were 1-2 versus the Roughnecks last season, winning the first game 11-10 at Calgary on Feb. 18 before losing 10-9 in OT at Calgary on April 1 and 15-13 at Vancouver on April 16.
In those games, the Warriors offence was powered by Keegan Bal , Logan Schuss and Kyle Killen. Bal was Vancouver’s leading scorer last season, and sixth in the NLL, with 44 goals and 99 points. Goalie Steve Fryer went 1-1 against the Roughnecks, winning the first game but taking the loss in the third.
“I always remember Calgary games as gritty and fast paced,” says Jones. “The majority of West Division and rivalry games are tight and often come down to a few plays, whoever is able to take over different parts of the game. Whether it’s faceoffs, special teams, transition play or 5v5 we need to excel in all areas to get the result we want.”
The Roughnecks’ Currier netted two goals, scooped up 35 loose balls and forced 12 turnovers in the three games against the Warriors last season.
“I remember all those games being very fast-paced and would assume it will be much of the same this season,” Currier says. “They have a lot of athleticism on the offensive and defensive side of the ball, and my guess is that they will want to play fast whether that means taking chances in transition or taking chances early in the shot clock.”
Calgary will have to retool after losing a major offensive player for the second offseason in a row as Curtis Dickson signed as a free agent with San Diego. Dane Dobbie did the same the previous year. Dickson had eight goals and nine assists versus Vancouver last season, including the OT winner on April 1.
“We have a very talented team despite losing those players and we can’t focus on what we don’t have going into this season,” says Currier. “We have new pieces on both sides of the ball this year. There will be lots of opportunity for players to expand their roles this season and we are looking forward to see who steps up.”
Jesse King, the Roughnecks’ leading scorer (and eighth in the NLL) last season with 29 goals and 95 points, will lead the Calgary offence along with Tyler Pace (26 goals and 67 points in 2021-22), Dan Taylor (18 goals, 43 points) and Zach Herrewyers (21 goals, 37 points). King had six goals and 10 assists against the Warriors.
The Roughnecks’ are anchored by netminder Christian Del Bianco, who went 10-8 last season in over 1,000 minutes with an 11.04 goals-against average and .772 save percentage. Del Bianco also recorded 17 assists.
“He’s an incredible talent,” Currier says. “There isn’t another goalie in the league like him. It’s extremely important for us to have solid goaltending and his ability to throw the ball in transition is massive for our overall team success.”
Vancouver’s goaltending needs to be better than in last week’s loss at Toronto. Veteran Fryer, 1-4 last season with a 10.83 goals-against average and .781 save percentage, started before being pulled for rookie Aden Walsh and then coming back in.
Fryer gave up a total of 13 goals and made 38 saves in 47:10 to finish with a 16.54 goals-against average and .754 save percentage. Walsh allowed six goals and stopped 10 shots in 12:50 of his first NLL action.
But Warriors lefty forward Jones says the entire Vancouver roster needs to be better this weekend.
“We have prepared for Calgary and know that it’s going to be a tough battle as always,” says Jones. “We need to be ready from the start, bring our compete level up and take advantage of any mistakes Calgary makes.”
The Roughnecks, NLL champions two season ago in 2019, understand it’s the start of the season and that mistakes may be made but have an ultimate goal in mind.
“We can’t wait to get back in front of our fans in the Saddledome this weekend but we are looking to improve on every aspect of the game,” Currier says. “We can’t be satisfied with our play from last season and we’d be lying to ourselves if we said we couldn’t improve offensively, defensively and in transition. Any season that doesn’t end with your team lifting the trophy after the final game is a collective failure.”