The Las Vegas Desert Dogs and the Albany FireWolves are heading in opposite directions at this point of the NLL Season. And yet, they still have the same 2-5 record.
By Sunday morning, after these two go to battle in Albany as part of Week 12 action, one of them will have more wins than the other (at least until Week 13). Now that we’re officially in the second half of the NLL Season, these two teams need all the wins they can get if they hope to make the postseason.
But before diving into this weekend’s clash between the Desert Dogs and FireWolves, let’s take a journey all the way back to Week 8 of this NLL Season. Heading into that mid-January slate of games, the FireWolves had a 2-2 record and had pulled off significant (and surprising) victories against the Buffalo Bandits and Halifax Thunderbirds. On the other hand, the Desert Dogs were 0-4 at that time and were still trying to find their groove in all aspects of their game.
The FireWolves proceeded to lose three straight games, including two against the New York Riptide. In that stretch, the FireWolves lost by an average of 5.33 goals per game and mustered an average of just nine goals per game. In fairness, their five goals against the Philadelphia Wings in Week 10 brought that average down quite a bit.
Things have improved considerably for the Desert Dogs in that same time frame. Following their 19-16 road loss to the Vancouver Warriors in Week 8, the Desert Dogs regrouped and have now won two of their last three games. Their first win in franchise history came during this period, and it was a remarkable avenging victory to the Warriors just a week after the 19-16 loss. Even in their one loss during those three games, they played well against the defensively sound and underrated Saskatchewan Rush. They put the cherry on top of their winning streak cake by defeating the defending champion Colorado Mammoth in Week 11 by a score of 13-8.
Sitting at 2-5, the Desert Dogs are now only a few games back of the Rush, Mammoth, and Panther City Lacrosse Club for one of the West Conference’s playoff spots.
Desert Dogs Head Coach Shawn Williams doesn’t want his team to get too excited about this little successful stretch they’re on now. He wants his guys to continue improving so that by the end of this season, they’ll be playing their best lacrosse.
“It’s all about getting better each game,” Williams said. “I felt at times that each game we played, no matter if it was in game one and game two, we had a lot of good things happening. We kept talking about building on the things we did well. It seemed like each game we were going forward.”
Nevertheless, Williams is proud of how much his guys have grown and come together as a team. Think about how big of a win it is for an expansion team to beat the defending NLL Champions, particularly by five goals. This is only the fifth time since the 2019-20 NLL Season that the Mammoth had lost a regular season game by five or more goals.
“We just started clicking on both sides of the ball,” Williams said. “The biggest thing was trust. Through the draft, expansion, and free agency, we built a great room of character people. There was never anything negative going on, but at some point, we said, ‘we’ve got to turn a page on just being a great room. We need to start being a great team on the floor, as well.’”
When you look at how the Desert Dogs are getting things done, it’s hard not to see how every player has played a part in the team’s recent success. Often, you know what you’re going to get out of your veteran stars, but it’s the young guns that are looking to prove themselves that are more likely to be inconsistent. In the case of offensive weapons Jack Hannah and Charlie Bertrand, these two less-experienced talents are already starting to play like they’ve been in this league for a long time.
“They’re just sponges,” Williams said. “On the offensive side, Jack [Hannah] and Charlie Bertrand – they obviously had great college careers. They’re definitely sponges, and they’re great guys in the locker room. They know that they have their talents, but they’re also trying to do whatever they can to play in the system as well.”
It’s essential to focus on the offensive side of the ball when looking ahead to this weekend’s cross-conference matchup. While the Desert Dogs have looked much more confident when attacking over the last few weeks, as I mentioned above, the same cannot be said for the FireWolves.
FireWolves Head Coach Glenn Clark stressed the need for his team to break out of this mini-offensive slump that his team is in. Diving into that a little deeper, it’s not necessarily how many goals the team is scoring – they did score 12 against the Riptide last week – it’s more about when they score.
Their Week 8 and Week 11 games against the Riptide are great examples. In Week 8, the FireWolves were losing 9-1 to the Riptide midway through the second quarter but outscored their opponents 9-7 the rest of the way in that 16-10 loss. In Week 11, the FireWolves were down 7-2 a few minutes before halftime and down 11-3 early in the third quarter, but they still only lost 14-12.
“If you look at this last three game stretch, we need to find ways to generate offense,” Clark said. “As bad as our defense was [against the Riptide in Week 8], it was 9-1 in the second quarter. Nine is not an outrageous number; one is. If that game is 9-7, you can look at that and say, ‘OK, we’re in striking distance.’ But, it was just such an anomaly that we only scored one goal, and we were out of it.”
The fact that the Desert Dogs have been playing very well of late has convinced Head Coach Clark that these Desert Dogs shouldn’t be looked at as an expansion team anymore. Clark knows that he’ll need to rely on his leadership group if his guys want to have a chance against the streaking West Conference side.
“They just beat the defending champs, so I see this as just another game that we’ve got to work, and we’ve got to play good,” Clark said. “They have the same record as us. It’s not cliche, [the NLL] is so tight; every team is good. We’re preparing for them like we prepare for Buffalo or any team on any given week.”
“It’s the captain’s group that I rely on a lot. They’re the conduits between the staff and team and everyone else. I have a lot of dialogue with them. I have separate meetings with them. It’s a lot about them keeping the group positive because we’re on a losing streak. It’s hard on everyone mentally.”
Regardless of how underwhelming the FireWolves have played over their last three games, Head Williams has no interest in taking this game lightly. You can play down to your opponent’s level when you’re fighting for your playoff life, and Williams wants his guys to understand that this could be a game where the FireWolves could come out swinging.
“It’s a perfect set-up game where all of a sudden everyone thinks we’re good – we only have two wins,” Williams said. “We’re still going out and getting what we’re earning here, and we still need to keep building on what we did last week. They’re coming off a bye week, and Albany is not the easiest place to get to for all of our Western guys, so there are obstacles ahead of us.”
A couple of interesting factors that will impact this clash are the significant injuries to both sides. Travis Cornwall, Marshal King, and Jackson Suboch will all be out for this game for the Desert Dogs. Joe Nardella and Charlie Kitchen will be out for the FireWolves.
Williams did say that he’s hopeful that forward John Wagner could return after missing the last three games. Even though Wagner has missed a considerable amount of time this season, he still leads all forwards with nine caused turnovers.
If there’s one player that can be particularly helpful to the Desert Dogs this weekend, it’s Rob Hellyer. He leads the team in assists (31) and points (40). And yes, he brings a steadying veteran mindset to each game, but it’s his previous experiences with the FireWolves that could come in handy for his team.
“They’re a team that works extremely hard,” Hellyer said. “I played them a few times when I was in Toronto, so I kind of know what to expect. They have a very good goalie in Dougie [Doug Jamieson], who backs up that defense, and they run – that’s something they’re known for. They’re very well coached, and they’re a team that will make you pay.”
Whatever the end result of Saturday night’s game (on ESPN+/TSN+), it’s pretty clear that both teams will try to give it their all because they know what each other is capable of. Whoever wins could be reasserting themselves into the playoff picture. The other might have to come to terms with the fact that it might be getting too late to realistically make a push for the postseason.