By Ray Lilley | NLL.com Staff Writer
Following a disappointing 0-3 start to the season, the New England Black Wolves (5-6) could have easily thrown in the towel. They did not. In fact, since their 0-3 start New England has won five of eight games and has the look of a team that can beat anyone.
Last Sunday, the Black Wolves dominated the first place Georgia Swarm and became the first to beat every East Division foe. Friday night at Mohegan Sun Arena, the Black Wolves (5-6) will face another team from the East in the Rochester Knighthawks (4-7).
Rochester currently sits in last place in the East but that does not paint the whole picture as first and last is only separated by three and a half games. As Black Wolves goaltender, Evan Kirk put it, it’s a log jam in the East and anyone can beat anyone. New England’s victory over Georgia on Sunday tightened that log jam and perhaps began to tell the story of two different seasons for the East Division.
“We’ve been playing pretty well,” said Black Wolves’ Head Coach Glenn Clark. “We’ve got ourselves on a bit of a roll so we want to continue with that and start building and getting stronger and hopefully be in a position to compete for a playoff spot and be playing our best when we need to.”
New England finished the first half of the season with a 3-6 record while Georgia put up a 7-2 mark. The Black Wolves were scratching and clawing to stay in the mix while the Swarm looked to be comfortably in a playoff spot. Sunday’s win not only shortened Georgia’s first place lead to one game, but the pure domination by New England displayed the offense and goaltending that created such high goals and expectations for the Black Wolves in the 2017 season.
Coming off an appearance in the East Division Finals in 2016, New England was looking to take that next step and get to the National Lacrosse League championship. Perhaps the pressure and lofty expectations caused the early struggles for the Black Wolves but a win on Friday could wipe that slate clean and get them back to the .500 mark.
“It’s certainly important (to get back to .500) because it’s divisional,” said Clark. “Every game you win in your division puts you one up and whoever you are playing, one back. That’s very important. We didn’t start the way we wanted to. We dug a hole at 0-3 so to be able to get back to the .500 mark would be a pretty good accomplishment.”
On Friday, New England will face the lowest scoring offense in the NLL, after facing the highest scoring club on Sunday. The success of New England on Sunday was mostly because Georgia could not seem to beat Evan Kirk, the reigning NLL Goaltender of the Year. Kirk, like the rest of the team, struggled early in the season. Of late he has been that goaltender that makes the opposition grip their sticks a little tighter as they look to solve the riddle that guards the Black Wolves goal.
“I think he’s moving into that next level of goaltenders,” Clark said of his goaltender. “Top tier goaltenders, where they are making the saves they should make and then making a few extraordinary ones. That’s what good goaltenders do. That’s what next level goaltenders do.”
An important part of the Black Wolves success of late has been Kirk’s ability to make timely saves and either stop the opposition from taking the momentum from them or stop them from continuing their own momentum to put New England in the rearview mirror. Clark acknowledged Kirk’s timely saves as potentially being their key to the NLL crown.
“I think he is getting into that upper tier of goaltenders in the league which is what teams need in order to win games. Every team that wins a championship has strong goaltending. You don’t win without it because in the game of lacrosse, you’re giving up good shots. It doesn’t matter what team you’re playing on, the opposition will get quality shots. Your goaltender needs to be strong, and Evan has been great this year.”
While we are talking goaltending, we must also talk about the goalie at the other end of the floor. Rochester’s Matt Vinc has consistently been one of the top goaltenders in the NLL for a number of years and creates a huge puzzle for the Black Wolves to solve on Friday night. Vinc ranks fourth in the league in goals against average and save percentage and has held New England to under ten goals in both of these team’s encounters this season.
“Their goaltending is very strong,” Clark said. “Matt Vinc has been one of the top goalies for the last five or six years so he can close the door on you and frustrate shooters. I think Vinc is the big x-factor. He has been known to win games before so he worries you a little bit.”
With New England’s offense rolling on all cylinders right now, everyone in the Wolf Den is hoping that the worrying about Vinc is quickly erased on St. Patrick’s Day at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Black Wolves will don special green uniforms for St. Patrick’s Day in search of some extra luck to beat Vinc and the Knighthawks and finally get back to that elusive .500 record.
Game time is 7:30 P.M. on Friday as New England looks to beat Rochester for their first three game win streak on the season.