While it’s tradition to ring in the New Year at the stroke of midnight, the Colorado Mammoth look to do so in the waning hours of Jan. 1 with a win at Pepsi Center when the team hosts the revamped Georgia Swarm at 9:30 p.m. ET to open the 2016 NLL season as the National Lacrosse League celebrates its 30th anniversary year. Watch the opening game of NLL Face Off Weekend presented by New Era live on Fox Sports GO and on Altitude TV (DIRECTV channel 681, Dish channel 413) in the U.S. and on TSN GO in Canada.
It was a similar circumstance in Denver just over a year ago when the Mammoth topped the Swarm 20-13 to begin a 3-0 start to their 2015 campaign. After January, it was an up-and-down affair of a season, filled with close contests, major ‘W’s and forgettable ‘L’s en-route to a 9-9 record and a one-and-done postseason appearance, the eighth time since the team’s championship season.
Coming into the season, many familiar names remain on roster, but not one of the most iconic. After 14 years in Colorado and the NLL, lockdown defender John Gallant recently announced his retirement, and with it, big shows to fill. But with one fan favorite gone, another has returned to the fold with the resigning of Ilija Gajic, who signed a one-year deal to return to the Mammoth, where he played from 2010-13.
Gajic will join several new faces in a revamped Colorado defense. Draft choices Jordan Gilles and Bryce Sweeting aim to make an immediate impact in front of Dillon Ward and Alex Buque, as well as free agent Greg Downing, who led the Swarm in loose balls among defenseman last season. They will join the likes of Mammoth veterans Transition Player of the Year Joey Cupido, Robert Hope and newly elected captain Dan Coates in guarding the crease.
The new combinations on defense will look to improve from the team’s 218 goals allowed in 2015, the fourth most in the NLL. Offensively the team was fourth in goals for with 212, led by Adam Jones’ 51 tallies. Jones and John Grant Jr. will be the expected lefty threats again this year; the right side will see Jeremy Noble and Callum Crawford, who registered 53 points (19+34) in 12 games last season with the Swarm.
Returning between the pipes are young stars Ward and Buque, who both posted impressive numbers throughout the season, and whose gameplay was pivotal many times in keeping Colorado on pace with its opponents. Ward played full time versus the Swarm in both Mammoth wins last season, and is expected to start in Friday’s home opener. Buque meanwhile appeared in nine games last season as both a starter and relief role, racking up an impressive .808 save percentage. With two proven anchors in net, goaltending could prove to be an edge for the Mammoth as the season goes on.
Friday night marks the first-ever regular season game in Georgia Swarm team history; Georgia hosts its inaugural home opener next Saturday, Jan. 9 against the Toronto Rock at Infinite Energy Arena for a 7:05 p.m. faceoff. Tickets can be purchased by calling 844-4-GASWARM or at GeorgiaSwarm.com.
Georgia features one of the league’s most talked about rosters, with four of the Top 6 picks from the 2015 NLL Draft making their pro debuts Friday evening in Lyle Thompson, Jesse King, Chad Tutton and Randy Staats. Last month, the Swarm finished the preseason 2-0 with wins against Toronto and Rochester, and is optimistic about its chances in 2016 with a new lineup as well as a new coaching staff.
“We’re hoping to do good things in Georgia,” Swarm head coach Ed Comeau said. “We thought we had a really good training camp, and our players and staff are excited to get playing for real.”
On Thursday evening, Georgia named two-time NLL Transition Player of the Year award winner Jordan MacIntosh its team captain, and Shayne Jackson and Jason Noble as assistant captains. Jackson led the Swarm in scoring last season, and Noble has been a steady defenseman for the Swarm since being selected No. 2 overall in 2013.
“We evaluated guys throughout camp and we really felt that Jordan MacIntosh, Shayne Jackson and Jason Noble established themselves as leaders,” Comeau said. “We have many other guys on our roster who are also great leaders, and we are really happy with our overall leadership from within the locker room.”
Heading into Denver this evening, the Swarm will face one of the league’s all-time greats in Mammoth forward John Grant. Jr, as well as forwards Adam Jones, Callum Crawford, and Jason Noble’s twin brother, Jeremy. Colorado finished the 2015 NLL season with a 9-9 record, and lost in the opening round of the playoffs.
“Game one’s are always a little bit tough for both teams and there’s a lack of information on each squad,” Comeau said. “We’re trying to focus a lot on our team, and what we need to do.”
By Nick Salen (@MammothBeat) for NLL.com and article courtesy of GeorgiaSwarm.com. Photo by Jack Dempsey.