Looking to bounceback from last year, the Minnesota Swarm have something to prove as they open up the 2015 NLL season by hosting the Colorado Mammoth on Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center at 8 p.m. ET as part of NLL Face Off Weekend ’15 presented by New Era. The game will stream live on UniversalSports.com in the U.S. and on TSN.ca in Canada.
The disappointing end to the Swarm’s 2014 season (4-14) was the beginning of their quest for an upgrade in performance for 2015, starting with a few strategic roster changes. If their undefeated preseason is any indication, the roster moves have generated a high potential team and serve as a positive introduction to the 2015 season.
“We’re coming off a real tough year so we knew we had to make some changes,” said Swarm head coach Joe Sullivan. “We are confident about the changes we’ve made and the impact these guys have had real quickly has been great.”
Expected to be a top performer for the Swarm this year is forward Miles Thompson, who was picked third overall in the 2014 NLL draft by Minnesota, along with fifth overall pick forward Shane MacDonald. Mitch Belisle, who took a year away from Minnesota to represent the U.S. in the World Lacrosse Championships, will reappear at his post with a defensive boost for the Swarm. Making his way between the posts by way of trade will be goalie Brodie MacDonald, who will share net time with third-year goalie Zach Higgins to create a solid defensive anchor.
Forward Shayne Jackson and defenseman Kiel Matisz will be back for their third seasons and are anticipated to be powerful contributors to a dynamic Minnesota team. Matisz will be entering the season with a different role, making the switch from forward to joining the defensive end in the hopes of remedying the high number of goals allowed from last year (219).
“When we gave him that option, he was all over it,” said Sullivan on Matisz’s conversion to defense.
Team captain and transition player Andrew Suitor and assistant captains, forward Callum Crawford and 2014 NLL Transition Player of the Year Jordan MacIntosh, are the leadership trio that look to lead their team to victory this year. A longing to prove their worthiness in contrast to last year’s below par performance will be the driving force behind the team, who will be missing 2014 NLL Rookie of the Year Logan Schuss to work commitments. Despite the absence of Schuss, the team is confident they can play on a high caliber level worthy of the Champion’s Cup.
“There’s more desire and hunger than there’s ever been,” said Crawford. “It’s quite humbling to have a season like we did, so it’s motivating us to push the young guys in a different way and to try to prepare them to take every game like it’s our last.”
The Swarm are excited to be opening their season at home for the second time in league history, and the first time since 2006. “The Hive” will be buzzing with an excitable crowd whose love for the game causes the team to view being surrounded by their fans as a huge advantage, equal to having an extra man on the team.
“Any time you can open the season with an extra man on your team, it’s always a plus,” said Crawford. “We’ve got quite a unique crowd in Minnesota, it’s one of the best places to play in the league. It’s exciting to get the season going that way.”
The mix of young talent and experienced veterans has the potential be a lethal combination that will make the Minnesota Swarm a team to watch as a new year and a new season approach. The team is ready to leave 2014 behind and will welcome 2015 with a fresh fervor complete with the tenacity and drive necessary to compete in the East Division.
“We’ve got such a great group of young guys and veterans,” said Crawford. “So it’s really exciting to get this season going.”
A fresh new year also means hopes of a better season for the Mammoth, as they look to ring in the new year with a win in their opening game on the road.
Colorado swallowed a bitter pill in an overtime loss in the first-round West Division Semifinal against Calgary, capping off a roller coaster season. Mammoth coach Dan Stroup concurred the team’s disheartening finish, but noted the team has used it as motivation to gear up for 2015.
“That was disappointing, but now that we’ve got training camp under our belt it was a good month of it,” Stroup said. “I think everyone is excited and we’re finally able to get going. That’s what we’ve been building for not only the last month, but since the Calgary game.”
Defenseman Dan Coates mirrored his coach’s response, noting the mentality of the team coming in to their opening game.
“I think that every team that goes is pretty optimistic,” he said. “We kind of talked in training camp that this is a marathon, not a sprint. The only game that matters is this one in Minnesota.”
The Swarm themselves are coming off a tough 2014 campaign as well. Looking to improve, Swarm head coach Joe Sullivan noted it will be no walk in the park against a Mammoth defense that he says has improved every year, and that nothing short of an ‘A-game’ will secure a ‘W’ in Week 1. Colorado prevailed over Minnesota in both the teams’ matchups last season, and will see some new, but familiar faces on defense this season with the return of Ian Hawksbee, as well as Cam Holding, who is coming off a career-high season in 2014.
Behind the defense will be goaltender Dillon Ward. Ward appeared in all 18 games last season in both a relief and starting role for the Mammoth, where he went 7-7, and posted a 0.77 save percentage. The numbers may seem mediocre, but to coach Stroup and the rest of the team, Ward’s presence was invaluable last season in Colorado’s second half turnaround and postseason push.
Stroup expects the former third overall pick to be a centerpiece in Colorado’s quest to return to playoff glory.
“I didn’t know Dillon that well before we joined the team. He’s not only a great goalie, but a great guy and pretty happy for him…he’s just getting better every game, every practice.”
Where the team shined in 2014, they struggled in other categories on the floor. The Mammoth finished last season with a league low in loose balls. The team led the NLL in one-goal deciding games last year with seven. If Colorado wants to avoid more nail-biting moments this season, those one or two extra loose balls may make all the difference.
“Obviously you’ve got to have the ball to get anything done,” Stroup added. “We got some great athletes and it’s something we talk about all the time, we have to have the ball.”
Story by Maria Jollie (@SwarmBeat) & Nick Salen (@MammothBeat) for NLL.com.