PHILADELPHIA — He could have shot it at any point in his trek down the floor, but Anthony Joaquim wanted to be sure. So much with this team this year had been a mirage. Games that seemed won slipped away all too often. So as the final minute waned, and the net he sought was empty, Joaquim passed on a deep shot for one with a higher probability of going in. He weaved through the Black Wolves defenders to reach point-blank range, dropped the ball past a New England defender outfitted with far less padding than a goalie, and arose from his diving effort to receive his congratulating teammates.
They mobbed him, the horn sounded and the 11,988 howling fans in the Wells Fargo Center drowned out all of it. They were rightfully jubilant, because this time it was real. A 13-8 win over New England (7-6) on Saturday night kept a faint postseason hope alive for Philadelphia (3-10), all while rewarding a Wings team for its most complete performance to date.
“Why not every night?” Head coach/general manager Paul Day asked his team in the locker room after the game. “We can play like that every night.”
On the surface, Saturday’s win extends a sliver of promise. The playoffs are a dream that can only be realized if the Wings win at least four of their final five games — four of which are on the road — and even that narrow chance hinges on an unlikely Black Wolves collapse over the next month. It could be argued that losses would benefit Philadelphia more so than wins, because a lower spot in the standings equates to a higher slot in the entry draft.
The Wings’ third win, though, was not about the standings or the draft or even the final score. It was about how they won, not that they won. Earlier this week, assistant coach Tracey Kelusky said the team must avoid “outcome-oriented thinking” because, he believed, the Wings were gripping their sticks too tightly when playing loose mattered most. As much was evident in the collapses that happened numerous times this season, and as late as in San Diego last week.
This week, the Wings stayed upright. Six forwards scored, including multi-goal efforts from Matt Rambo, Josh Currier and Kevin Crowley. Three defenseman chipped in with goals, and the team found the net at least twice in each quarter. The defense stalled a New England team that was without the 34 goals of the suspended Callum Crawford. All of it was rooted in a career day from Doug Buchan, who stopped 55 of 63 shots.
“We stayed healthy tonight and had great effort start to finish,” Day said. “That’s Doug’s best game. He’s had some really good games but that’s a really good game.”
Not long ago, one could have rightfully questioned which rookie goalie — Buchan or Davide DiRuscio — deserved more looks in net. Multiple times, one or the other had been plugged in mid-game to provide a spark. But neither had performed consistently enough to lock down the gig full-time.
Buchan often struggled to reset after a bad half, Day said. So, the 24-year-old studied the game. He watched film. He consulted his mentor, former NLL goalie of the year Matt Vinc. Buchan’s no legend yet, but Day is pleased with the growth of his now-solidified netminder.
“I think he’s the first rookie starter since 2000,” Day said. “Matt King in Calgary, probably. Matt Vinc, the best goalie in the world, played like three minutes with the Stealth years ago, and then went to New York and became the starter halfway through the second year.”
Buchan’s progress has to be partially credited to an improved defense, said assistant captain Jordan Hall. New England needed all of 49 seconds to score, but the Wings soon thereafter gained a firm control it would not relinquish. The eight goals allowed Saturday were a season-low for the Wings. Two were produced during New England powerplays.
“I think our defensive unit, as a whole, we’ve really bought into the system and what the coaches are telling us,” said defenseman Liam Patten, who also added a goal and an assist. “I think we’re just starting to learn each other and play really well with each other.”
The same could be said for the offensive group. Josh Currier answered New England’s opener with a hand in two goals. First, the forward connected with Blaze Riorden on a curl around the net to assist a close-range score, then shook his man and dove across the crease from left to right to give the Wings their first lead of the night. Patten’s scoop-and-score was the only other offense in an opening period that saw both teams successfully kill a penalty.
Four different Philadelphia forwards scored in a second quarter that would have been dominant had the Black Wolves not reaped reaped the benefit of the powerplay. Jordan Hall cleaned up a shot that rocketed out of Matt Rambo’s stick and off of Doug Jamieson’s chest. “We call that a ‘Rambo Assist,’” Hall said. Rambo picked two corners later in the period. The Wings’ best form includes the Maryland product scoring in bunches.
The third quarter followed a similar pattern. The Black Wolves’ Joe Resetarits struck first to cut into Philadelphia’s 8-3 halftime advantage, but Frank Brown answered with his fourth goal of the year. The only other New England goals in the third came from a short-handed wraparound dandy via Resetarits — who finished with three goals and two assists — and a powerplay score from Tyler Digby.
The Wings’ offense slowed, but Crowley capped a hat trick in the fourth. Digby and Resetarits bagged two more, but the defense buckled down for the final four minutes. A few Black Wolves picked fights, and each team was penalized four times in the last period, but Philadelphia didn’t lose its composure.
The signature meltdown never initiated. Why not every night? The Wings have to provide an answer every week. That starts with another visit to Toronto. When the Wings traveled north in January, those meltdowns were still gaining a reputation.
“We played our best game of the season early on in Toronto,” Day said. “We were really good for 58 minutes and made a couple of mental mistakes that we won’t make anymore. We’re pretty comfortable there. Guys have played there, grew up there. It’ll a pretty special week for guys to go back and finish what we started last time.”