Goaltender Battle, Rising Stars Highlight Philadelphia at Colorado
Higgins and Ward Compete as Two of the Top Goalies in the NLL
February 28, 2020By: Ryan Ireland
The Colorado Mammoth (5-6, 3rd in the West) will host the Philadelphia Wings (7-4, 1st in the East) Saturday night for an interdivisional matchup in a busy Week 14 where all NLL teams will be playing. This will only be the second meeting between these two teams since the resurrection of the Wings last season, and the first time these Wings have visited the Loud House in Denver.
Although a large portion of each team’s rosters are like last season’s matchup, a lot has changed in the direction of both teams. Colorado took the lone matchup in the 2018-19 season in Philadelphia 12-10, highlighted by Eli McLaughlin’s five points (4g, 1a) and by former Mammoth Ryan Benesch’s nine points (2g, 7a). For Philadelphia, Matt Rambo was held scoreless while Blaze Riorden and Josh Currier led the scoring efforts with three goals each. Goalie Doug Buchan struggled for the Wings, only making 28 saves out of the 40 shots on net. At the end of the year, Colorado squeaked their way into the playoffs but made a run to the West Division Finals whereas Philadelphia finished at 4-14 and last place in the East in their first year as an expansion team.
Fast forward to the 2019-20 season, Philadelphia has turned a lot of heads and has already won seven games and is leading a difficult East Division, meanwhile Colorado is within striking distance of the top of the competitive West Division but could see itself slide the other direction with a loss. Some may question the Wings success with three of their wins so far this season coming against the expansion teams whose combined record is 2-17, but they do have wins against Calgary, Buffalo and New England. Colorado has a lighter schedule to finish the season compared to the start of the year, with five of seven games at home, including games against both expansion teams and a Vancouver team who is currently three games under .500 to end the year and last in the West. Colorado is coming off a win two weeks ago versus San Diego and its first bye week since December last week.
Philadelphia has entered the difficult stretch of their schedule. Including last weekend’s loss versus Saskatchewan, they play against the first and second place teams from the North Division in Toronto and Halifax, the first place team in the West and have rematches against all other teams in the East Division in New England and Georgia who are currently half a game and one game behind Philadelphia in the division respectively. Good news is four of their final six games are at home.
A few key differences have helped the Wings turn their second NLL season into a successful one. The most noticeable difference is in net with Zach Higgins. Higgins was acquired from Buffalo over the offseason in exchange for Doug Buchan in addition to a swap of draft picks. Higgins has been a bit of a journeyman in the NLL since he entered the league in 2013 but has found his groove this season. Last season for the Wings, their goalies combined for 13.67 goals against average and a save percentage of 0.746. Of all goalies this season with at least 400 minutes played, Higgins is second in goals against average at 9.18, is second in total saves at 439 and is tied for first in save percentage. The Wings are allowing 9.36 goals per game this season versus 13.67 per game last year. The four-goal turnaround is by far the best turnaround in the NLL year over year.
Unfortunately for Higgins, the goalie on the other side of the field is putting up a competitive battle for the potential NLL Goaltender of the Year argument and has made some unbelievable saves in the last two weeks. Dillon Ward for the Mammoth leads the league in minutes played at 660:31 in 11 games played (yes, that is more than 60 minutes per game), leads the league in saves at 470 (and is on pace to break the single season saves record set by Anthony Cosmo in 2014 at 752), is right behind Higgins in goals allowed average at 9.27 and is tied with Higgins for first in save percentage at .822. Should both teams and goaltenders keep up these kinds of performances, they may not only battle for NLL Goaltender of the Year Award but potentially the MVP Award.
Wings GM Paul Day has done an impeccable job of developing his young talent as well as adding key pieces to this team to make it a competitor in its second year of existence. Forward Matt Rambo has greatly improved his box skillset and is only 11 points away from surpassing his total from his rookie season. Returning to the town where he became a star at the University of Denver, Trevor Baptiste has continued to dominate the faceoff circle with a 73.5%-win percentage but has found his scoring groove, having scored six goals this season (compared to zero in his rookie season). He is currently leading the league in loose balls recovered at 122. The Wings have seven forwards with over 20 points on the season and six players with 10+ goals on the year. Brett Hickey is third in the NLL with 24 goals, while Kevin Crowley and Matt Rambo are tied for eighth with 18. Crowley is also leading the league in assists heading into this weekend. The offense has found its balance and is playing like a cohesive unit. Two moves that may not show up in the box score that have made an impact on the younger players in the organization have been the free agent acquisitions of forward Cory Vitarelli and defender Ian Llord. Both players were traded from the Rochester Knighthawks to Colorado last season and were signed as free agents to Philadelphia over the summer. GM Paul Day has a lot of familiarity with these players having played on the Peterborough Lakers of the MSL over the summer, where Day is also the GM. Both players have championship mindsets having played for championship winning teams in Rochester but also are physical players who make the players around them better. For a younger roster, these two players have been able to add a lot of veteran presence and a winning mindset to this roster that struggled a year ago.
For Colorado, the biggest news they have made are the recent trades around the league. First, they sent defenseman Taylor Stuart to Toronto for a second-round draft pick (via Rochester) which gave rookie Brett Craig seemingly a full-time spot on the roster and more playing time. Two weeks later, Colorado traded that pick as well as a 2021 second round draft pick to the New York Riptide in exchange for their leading scorer from their first season as an expansion team, Tyler Digby. Mammoth Assistant GM Brad Self had to say about Digby “We’ve really liked his game for quite some time now. He’s a big guy and has a phenomenal lacrosse IQ who’s capable of scoring and creating space for his teammates.” The offense for Colorado has gone in waves. The top four of the offense is almost solidified with Eli McLaughlin and Chris Wardle on the left side and Ryan Lee and Jacob Ruest on the right side. The other spots have been a revolving door of who is hot and giving young guys an opportunity to play between Kyle Killen, Jeff Wittig, Will Malcom, Dylan Molloy, Dylan Kinnear and most recently Jake McNabb. With the addition of Digby, the Mammoth are hoping they have solidified their fifth forward and it will create more opportunities for everyone.
Digby led the expansion Riptide with 36 points (14g, 22a) and has had some great seasons in the NLL. The 6’3, 277lb forward brings some much-needed size to the offense as well as a scorers touch. He has scored 165 goals in 112 games as well as accruing 214 assists in that time. Last season with New England, he tallied 72 points (27g, 45a) and a 0.260 shot percentage which led all forwards with at least 40 shots. He was the fourth leading scorer for the Black Wolves last season and helped create space for MVP candidate Callum Crawford who finished at 109 points in 16 games played. Digby was the 18th selection in the 2019 expansion draft and will join his fifth NLL team in his career. Luckily for Digby, he will have at least one familiar face on the team, having been college teammates with Mammoth forward Jacob Ruest at Robert Morris University. He has also played with Eli McLaughlin with the Burnaby Lakers of the WLA. Colorado will need to add scoring help since they are one of four teams averaging less than 10 goals per game (along with Vancouver, New York and Rochester). Digby will be able to help create space for shooters like Ryan Lee and Kyle Killen, but also work the pick and roll with Ruest and distribute to the left side of the offense.
Some milestones to watch out for:
Dillon Ward should cross 6,000 minutes played this game as well as 4,000 saves in his career after securing his 50th career win last week
Eli McLaughlin with four assists will tie Adam Jones for 4th in Mammoth history and 5th in franchise history
Chris Wardle needs three points to set his single season career high
Robert Hope needs four loose balls to record his 5th straight season with 100+ loose balls. He is currently 3rd in the NLL in loose balls, but first among non-faceoff men
Scott Carnegie is one loose ball away from 700 in his career
Matt Rambo needs three assists to tie his rookie season total
Trevor Baptiste needs three faceoff wins to surpass 200 on this season
Expect this game to be a goaltender battle with the likes of Higgins and Ward in net. The offenses will find some grooves and good scoring chances but ultimately will get frustrated with the physical defensive play, minimal penalties and having a hard time getting ball in the net. Philadelphia and Colorado have played the same number of games, but Philadelphia has over 100 more shots logged. The Wings will look to shoot frequently while Colorado capitalizes on their best opportunities. Colorado has done a phenomenal job of holding teams’ primary scorers in check in players like Mark Matthews, Lyle Thompson, Mitch Jones and Dhane Smith but will they be able to stop all the options that Philadelphia has? How much of a factor will Tyler Digby have in his Mammoth debut to be able to get more quality scoring opportunities for the Mammoth? At this point in the season, every matchup matters, especially when every team in the NLL is playing this weekend and all three divisions are up for grabs.
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