PHILADELPHIA — Kevin Crowley has a nose for goal superior to most lacrosse players, but this time it faced the wrong the way. Matt Rambo’s shot had caromed off the boards, and its trajectory toward the opposite half of the floor meant play was about to stop.
A whistle wouldn’t have been so bad for the Wings. Rambo had misfired because an illegal hit disrupted his shooting motion and dislodged his helmet, and a power play during sudden death would have been favorable. But the Wings, losers in overtime once already this season, had drafted a plan — secure the bonus period’s opening faceoff, immediately call timeout, score — that couldn’t wait for favor.
Trevor Baptiste, after Rochester tied the game at 14 with 20 seconds remaining in regulation, easily completed the first two steps of the deal; Crowley, in pursuit of the loose ball, lunged to extend hope for the third. As the ball bounced over the midline, he extended his stick with one arm, scooped the ball out of the air and flicked it over his shoulder before landing. The hustle play put the ball back into the offensive zone and — although it didn’t seem obvious in the moment — gave life to a Wings season which to that point had only known loss.
Four passes and a one-timer from forward Blaze Riorden later, bedlam. Black jerseys buried Riorden against the wall. A dragon stormed the floor. The Knighthawks (2-4) retreated, and for the 15th time Friday night, Chris Brown’s “Yeah 3x” roared in throughout the Wells Fargo Center. The first words out of the mouth of Wings (1-6) head coach/general manager Paul Day explained why.
“We won,” Day said.
The route to victory was not as direct as the Wings would have hoped. A good chunk of the roster was forced to drive to Philadelphia because of flight cancellations, some of them traveling from as far as Toronto. Many missed Thursday night’s practice.
Withstanding a game of runs proved no simpler. The Wings, after scoring the final five goals of the first half, pushed their lead to 9-5 early in the third quarter. That lead shrunk, then disappeared. When Cody Jamison scored two wizard-like wrap-around goals to send Wings goalie Doug Buchan to the bench, it reappeared. Except this time, the lead belonged to Rochester. The Wings, trailing 12-10, had a little less than 12 minutes to respond.
“You play for one another,” Riorden said. “Dougie got us to a point where we could win the game.”
Forward Josh Currier started the rally and completed his hat trick with an underhand roller to beat the shot clock. Riorden swam past Knighthawk defenseman Graeme Hossack and dove across the crease to tie the game. He rose to his feet, stuck his arms in the air and asked for more. Vaughn Harris answered. He performed his best impression of Riordan, a swim move from the opposite side, and Captain Kiel Matisz followed to put the Wings back up by two with two-plus to play.
Rochester pulled goalie Angus Goodleaf. It worked. But daggers from forwards Kyle Jackson and Jamieson could not deflate the crowd of 10,210. “Let’s Go Wings” chants echoed throughout the end of regulation. All sorts of chaos let loose when Riorden scored again to conclude the contest.
“It was kind of a blur,” Riorden said. “But all credit goes to the whole organization, from the coaching staff to the training staff to the players. Honestly, it was a layup. It had nothing to do with me. Just a lot of hard work for 60 minutes. We talked about playing 60 minutes and we had to play a couple more today and we did that.”
Riorden can deflect the title of hero if he so chooses, but his game-winning goal was something the Wings sorely lacked for eight weeks. Often, it was the one thing they needed to cap a second-half comeback. Last week, it would have been the plug to remedy a fourth-quarter collapse. But, before Friday, it never came, and Philadelphia went home a loser in each of its first six contests.
The breakthrough served as cause for celebration. After shaking hands with Rochester, every Wing took a victory lap. They smacked their sticks and fists on the glass in appreciation for the other side. One bold supporter even climbed to the top of a pane for literal high-fives. No one told him to get down. Why would they? The Wings hadn’t won since 2014.
“I’m actually shocked we’ve had such good support this whole time,” assistant captain Jordan Hall said. “It’s nothing against the fans, but being 0-6, I’ve seen cities turn. And Philly is a very passionate city when it comes to sports. Hats off to the city, to the fans. We feel it when they’re cheering for us.”
And what was that feeling on Friday, when they jogged off the field and into the tunnel as winning Wings for the first time?
“Pure joy honestly,” Matisz said. “I’ve loved this city since the first time I got here. To kind of give a win to the fans and to give a win to the our organization that has backed us even in the tough times is fantastic. This group has shown nothing but resilience, nothing but positivity. Obviously it’s not a record we’re very proud of, but we’re definitely proud to get this one.”
Matisz, with eight points, contributed the most. Both Steph Charbonneau and Anthony Joaquim chipped in goals from the defensive end. Rookie forward Chris Cloutier, without a goal for the fourth straight game, still tallied four assists. And Hall had probably his best effort of the year, notching two goals and three assists. In all, nine different Wings scored.
Baptiste won 24 of 33 faceoffs (72.7 percent). The Wings put 63 shots on target to Rochester’s 42. They corralled 88 loose balls, far more than the Knighthawks’ 61. The dominance might not have showed in the final score, but it sure was obvious in the win column.
For that, the Wings made plans to party. But next week, Matisz said, starts on Saturday. Colorado arrives in seven days.
“And I truly think,” Day said, “we can beat anybody in the league.”