PHILADELPHIA — Pessimists could have dismantled these Wings. The team blew a chance at a second win last week when it scored only 10 goals against last-place Colorado. A tendency to play 45 minutes of good lacrosse — instead of the 60 usually required to win — had given the Wings a 1-5 record in games decided by two goals or fewer. And Sunday’s arrival meant the season was already halfway complete.
But, all the above being true, even the bleakest breakdown of lacrosse in Philadelphia could not negate the fact that the Wings (2-7) entered this weekend’s back-to-back against New England with a chance to come out on the other side just 1 1/2 games out of a spot in the postseason. The fourth in final seed in the east, currently owned by the visiting Black Wolves (4-4), was and is wide open. And don’t think Paul Day needed a reminder.
“We want to make the playoffs,” the head coach/general manager said after his team’s shootaround Saturday morning. “We’ve been so close every game. Our record could be much better but it’s not. We understand that, but we move forward right on to the next week. (We have a) pretty good opportunity to play one of the teams we gotta catch.”
That pursuit made Saturday’s 14-10 win at the Wells Fargo Center paramount. The first step in leapfrogging a team in the standings is to beat it head-to-head. The Wings have done that. Their biggest names played up to size. Their rookie goalkeeper posted the best game of his young career. When the Black Wolves came within one in the fourth quarter, a Philadelphia squad that usually crumbles surged instead. Under the mounting pressure of a chippy game between new rivals, the Wings stayed composed.
Now, after securing their most important win to date, the Wings awake Sunday to try do the same thing again. A loss would wash Saturday’s progress and put the Wings 3 1/2 games behind New England with eight to play. But a win? That would nearly erase the 0-6 start that before this month seemed inescapable and make the next two months far more interesting than what was projected amid those torid beginnings.
“We’re all thinking about it,” defenseman Steph Charbonneau said of the playoff push. “It’s a huge weekend as a whole. We look at tonight as just the first half.”
The Wings would do well to start the second half of the back-to-back like they did the first. In the Saturday’s second minute of play, forward Matt Rambo sliced through the Black Wolves defense and paid for his travels with a heavy hit. It didn’t matter because he scored, which became a trend. Day has often said he wants Rambo, a Tewaaraton Award winner as the top player in collegiate field lacrosse, to play naturally and not try to conform to the box game. Rambo recorded his first career hat trick and seemed to play as freely as he has all season. “That was awesome,” he said. Good timing.
“He was aggressive and he was assertive and that’s what we want,” Day said.
Later, after the Wings spoiled a power play with two penalties of their own, Kevin Crowley atoned for the errors with a short-handed goal. It was a preview of what Crowley would produce in his first game against his former team. In the second, Crowley posted up a Black Wolves defender and fired a fadeaway shot. It went in. He barrelled a wide open look on the power play into the back of the net. It went in. Crowley, a week after being kept off the scoresheet, finished with four goals on 10 shots.
“I think he was looking forward to this game for a little bit,” Day said with a smirk.
Rambo and Crowley paced a unit that took an 8-6 advantage to the break. Charbonneau, who late in the second burst downfield after a New England turnover and found no company but New England goalie Alex Buque, used his seventh goal of the year to push Philadelphia to its first-half total.
Not much changed in a third period during which both teams scored twice. In weeks past, that brought Philadelphia to a fourth-quarter blow-up. Penalties. Defensive lapses. Pipes. Not Saturday, when the Wings exploded for four consecutive goals.
After hitting two posts, the Wings retained possession and drew a power play. It produced a Blaze Riorden goal that Day later called a “big momentum shift.” Josh Currier buried a one-timer, courtesy of Charbonneau, at the crease. Vaughn Harris poked the ball free on the defensive end and watched his takeaway ping from Kiel Matisz to Jordan Hall to Currier to the back of the net. Matisz picked off a pass and launched a deep ball to defensemen Liam Patten for a breakaway goal.
All the while, New England put up more than two goals in quarter just once. Doug Buchan stopped 42 of the 52 shots the Black Wolves put on goal, good for an .808 save percentage (Vancouver’s Eric Penney leads the league with .806). So, was this the best Day had ever seen from Buchan, who also plays for Day’s Peterborough Lakers of Major Series Lacrosse?
“In this league,” Day said, “absolutely,” Day said.
Buchan, in front of the press for the first time this season, deferred.
“It was an all-around team effort from our defense,” the 24-year-old netminder said. “They started, in the first five minutes of the game, physical. All their guys were all over the ground right off the bat. And then it led to the second quarter where they weren’t even coming toward the middle of the floor, which is nice to see. Usually we start slow in the third quarter. Tonight, we started fast.”
Eventually, the Black Wolves grew frustrated and accrued three penalties in the game’s final three minutes. Patten had his helmet ripped off. Several times the fight bell rang, only to have any tussle fizzled out by the referees.
Before Sunday’s rematch, both teams boarded their respective buses to venture north. Day won’t sleep because he can’t in transit. Instead, he’ll distribute film cut earlier this week, because the floor at Mohegan Sun Arena is smaller and, he said, “(New England will) be different, and they know we’ll be different. It’s going to be a tighter, physical game compared to tonight.”
Tensions between new rivals could reach a boiling point. The Wings will need to come ready if they want Saturday’s win to mean anything come Monday.
Said Rambo: “We’re not backing down.”