PHILADELPHIA — The game was over, but Kevin Crowley was not yet leaving. Instead, he put his hands on his knees and stared across the rink. Drained from the pursuit of a comeback fallen short, he watched as the visiting Swarm embraced goalie Mike Poulin to celebrate its 13-11 victory at the Wells Fargo Center.
In some ways, it was a win for Philadelphia that Crowley was even there. He viewed the first four weeks of the NLL season from his couch on the other side of town. At the time, his rights belonged to the Black Wolves. One trade and a freshly inked contract later, he became a Wing. He will be one for at least three more years. For that, the 30-year-old veteran was grateful.
“I love this locker room,” Crowley said. “I like the guys in it. I like the leadership. I like the young guys. We’re battling toward a common goal.”
But they lost that battle Saturday night, and that was why a dream week for Crowley ended with him exhausted in disappointment. He attempted a game-high 17 shots in his first action of the season, but the Wings — after two early goals — could not crack Poulin for much of the first half, suffered through Georgia’s eight-goal rampage, then failed to erase the resulting six-goal deficit before 60 minutes had expired.
With the win, Georgia (4-0) stayed put as the league’s last unbeaten. Poulin saved 49 of 60 shots (81.6 percent) to continue his brilliant start to the season. Forwards Lyle Thompson and Randy Staats chipped in three goals each.
In defeat, the Wings (0-4) not only extended their search for their elusive first win, but also magnified their position at the bottom of the standings. Philadelphia exited this weekend 2 1/2 games behind the fourth and final playoff seed in the eastern division. It has lost to four of the five teams slotted higher, and will need to turn narrow defeats — the Wings have been within a goal of the lead during a game’s final minute twice and lost in overtime last week — into tight wins soon.
Even if their record doesn’t not show it, assistant captain Dylan Evans feels the Wings are close.
“We’re a couple mistakes away each game from being 3-1,” the defenseman said. “The message to the group right now is just to stick with it. Believe in each other. Play with confidence. And I think we’ve got some goods things coming our way.”
In the game’s opening minutes, the confidence was not lacking. Forward Josh Currier opened the scoring when he snuck from the bench to the crease practically uncovered. Blaze Riorden soon added his first goal as a Wing to put the home team up 2-0, then launched himself into the glass to celebrate
Both players would later finish with hat tricks, but not before the Swarm neutralized the crowd of 12,688 with a dominant stretch of eight unanswered goals. It started when Staats had a shot trickle through the legs of Wings goalie Davide Diruscio after an initial save. The rest of the onslaught required less luck. Rookie defenseman Matt Dunn raced upfield and netted the first goal of his career. Forward Shayne Jackson gobbled up a rebound and beat DiRuscio for a lead Georgia never lost. Thompson padded it with two goals before the team’s changed ends.
“We were watching Lyle Thompson, who obviously is one of the best players in the world, shoot the ball,” Wings head coach/general manager Paul Day said. “We just watched him.”
Early in the second quarter, after the Swarm earned their sixth goal, Day replaced DiRuscio with Doug Buchan, who went on to halt 29 of 36 shots (80.6 percent). A week after the rookie collected 51 saves in Toronto, Day said Buchan had “absolutely” earned the right to start next week in Buffalo.
The netminder was not the issue. The defense was.
“They’re the top team in the east and one of the top teams in the league, but I thought we gave them way too much respect in the first quarter,” Day said of the Swarm. “I’m pretty disappointed with our play in the first half and not being aggressive and being physical defensively and attacking them. That’s our game plan. That’s the type of game we play.
“We gotta be much better than that to win in this league.”
Before Friday night’s practice, Day talked about how impressed he had been with young defensemen like Liam Patten, Anthony Joaquim and Steph Charbonneau. Plenty of experts and outsiders doubted that portion of the Wings’ roster entering the season, and to no surprise to Day, it had been a strength of late. They had contributed with goals in transition. Especially in Toronto, they played the style of defense Day had preached since the preseason. Saturday’s first half did not follow the same trend.
“I don’t know if we’re nervous or apprehensive with some of these big names, but that’s part of the confidence,” Evans, the team’s defensive leader, said. “We’ve gotta play our system, and our system is to dictate where we want guys shooting from.”
Philadelphia managed to rediscover that identity in the second half, when the only goal it allowed at even strength came during the game’s final minute. And as time passed, Crowley said, an offense that has had few chances to build chemistry began to mesh. They won the third quarter, 3-1, despite not capitalizing while Georgia’s Holden Cattoni sat in the penalty box for five minutes.
But in the fourth, the climb out of a six-goal hole proved to be too steep. The Swarm scored 30 seconds into the period. Chris Cloutier appeared to end a scoreless night on a pick play executed perfectly, but the referees waved off the goal because that pick was deemed to be illegal. And when the Wings got within one goal of tying the game, and Crowley’s offensive arsenal would have been useful, the newest Wing picked up a penalty.
These are the difference between 3-1 and 0-4.
“Hopefully,” Crowley said, “we can stop making those mistakes and get our first W next weekend.”