As the seconds wound down in the Calgary Roughnecks season-opener against the Vancouver Warriors, the team watched their five-goal lead slowly evaporate over the final 14 minutes. It was an unexpected turn of events, the Roughnecks would go on to lose their first match of the season 14-13 in overtime to start the year 0-1.
“We always have keys to the game and discipline is one of them; that game we lacked it,” forward Rhys Duch said of the team’s first game performance. “It was a big wake up call when you blow a five-goal lead after you’re feeling comfortable and then lose in overtime.”
Since then, however, the Roughnecks have not lost a game. In fact, at 3-1, they are off to their best start since 2009. Furthermore, if they can win this weekend against the New England Black Wolves, it will be only the third time they would have four wins in the first five games.
Roughnecks head coach Curt Malawsky believes that his team’s success doesn’t rest on just one play or one facet of the team’s game. It’s been a collective effort that has led them to the top of the West Division.
“It’s been a complete team effort on both sides of the ball,” said Malawsky. “Right from the goaltender out, from the defensive side to the offensive side, every guy is pulling on a rope. One night some guy might be higher up in the scoring than someone else, but everyone is doing their job and everyone is contributing.”
Of course, there are glaring roster differences compared to last year, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Forwards Curtis Dickson and Wesley Berg still haven’t played this season because of contractual disagreements, newly acquired forward Jesse King remains sidelined by injury with no clear timetable for his return,Tyler Digby has been swapped for draft picks with the New England Black Wolves while Holden Cattoni was swapped for the aforementioned King, and Duch joined his former West Division rival following his release from the Vancouver Warriors.
Despite a shortened pre-season and the roster changes the team’s chemistry is in mid-season form. Since Berg and Dickson began playing together in 2016, the Roughnecks averaged 12.1 goals and 18.2 assists per game over three seasons. In four games without them (and the others) this season, the are still on par with those averages collecting 11.75 goals and 19 assists per game.
Roughnecks GM Mike Board believes there is a boost both on the offensive and defensive ends that has come from the young players who stepping up when given the chance to take to the floor. Their ability to step up and take their opportunity while working with the veteran guys, has given this team a youthful energy.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm in the locker room,” said Board. “I think that comes from the number of young guys that we’ve got. We’ve got [defenders] like Eli Salama and Reece Callies and Shane Simpson and [forward] Chris Bouchy.”
“Guys like that and others like [defender] Anthony Kalinich and [forward] Ryan Martel are also really young. Because of them, I think there is an added enthusiasm there. The veterans have also been great a helping the kids along and the young kids are pushing the vets a little bit.”
Newly acquired forward Dan Taylor also has seen the strong effort from the young players who have taken advantage of the available roster spots.
“I think [our success] has a lot to do with guys buying into [the system],” said Taylor. “I think our veteran leadership has set the standard for what was expected and I think the young guys have realized that there are opportunities to be had and they’ve seized them.”
Veteran scorers such as Duch and Dane Dobbie have led the team on offence. They both have 10+ goals and combine for 46% of the teams goals and 36% of the team’s assists. If Dobbie were to continue his hot start, he would challenge his personal-best of 51 scores in a season. But, after over a decade in the league of consistent scoring, coach Malawsky isn’t surprised by their phenom.
“Dane Dobbie is probably the smartest person in the league, in my opinion,” said Malawsky. “He’s another coach out there. He’s always talking, he’s always helping his teammates. Then you have Duch and his compete-level. I’ve known him as a lacrosse player for 15 years now and he’s always been a fierce competitor.”
“When you add those two together, and you see them getting chemistry on the floor and they’re teaching our young guys. When you see you see those guys work hard on the floor, as a young guy, you can’t help but want to do the same thing.”
Those young guns have done their best to emulate their veteran leaders. Taylor and Boushy have six and four goals respectively while 23-year-old Tyler Pace has netted five goals in four games.
In transition, 24-year-old Zach Currier continues his red-hot start to his career in just his second year. He already has a league second-best 37 loose balls and a league second-best eight caused turnovers. And on the back-end, Kalinich and Simpson have both scooped up 12 loose balls and they have six and four caused turnovers respectively.
And who can forget about the goaltender? In his second season as a full-time starter in the NLL, Christian Del Bianco is picking up right where he left off last season. Del Bianco currently holds the top spots in both goals against average (8.60) and save percentage (.816%). He is showing that he is clearly the predominant, young goaltender in this league and that is not lost on his teammates for one moment.
“We’re playing as a five-man unit and it starts with the defence and goes back to [Del Bianco],” said Dobbie. “He’s always steady between the pipes. He makes the saves that he’s supposed to and then also makes some stellar saves. He makes big time saves for us.”
Not only have the Roughnecks jumped out to the top of the West Division early on, call of their wins have come against West Division opponents. Winning key matchups like that and piling up the wins in the first couple months can set this team up for potentially good playoff seeding.
“A hot start is really important in this league and sets you up to make the playoffs,” said Duch. “I think it’s quite exciting that there are quite a few new players on this team and that we’re able to gel and be successful early on.”
The team’s discipline should keep them head strong, and they’ll need to be the remainder of the year. A hot start doesn’t necessarily mean championship glory. In 2007 when the Roughnecks started the year 4-1, they ended up losing in the first round of the playoffs.
Yet, the Roughnecks did manage to win the NLL Championship two years later in 2009 when they started 5-0. How will the 2019 Roughnecks fair? There’s much more lacrosse to be played, so we’ll have to wait and see how long they can keep this impressive run going.