PHILADELPHIA — It was not long ago that Paul Day approached the microphone after his team’s first loss at the Wells Fargo Center and joked. The Wings’ head coach/general manager said he should have done his hair before appearing in front of bright lights and cellphone cameras. The room laughed because Day is bald.
As the weeks went on and the losses piled up, Day remained in good spirits during his obligatory postgame sessions — at least to an extent — because he stood at the helm of a team that didn’t lack effort and, as he said, was “getting better every week.”
Saturday was different. After a 12-10 Wings (1-7) loss to the Colorado Mammoth (2-5), Day again quipped with a pinch of humor. As he took a seat in front of the sponsored backdrop, a small burst of air traveled from his stomach and out of his mouth.
“That’s how I feel about the game,” Day muttered after the subtle burp.
This time, he didn’t laugh. And if it hadn’t been for Trevor Baptiste mistakenly referring to new teammate Ryan Wagner as “Jake” and getting called out on his blunder by Blaze Riorden, none of the players to appear after the game would have chuckled either. The Wings’ latest showing was one that featured another fourth-quarter collapse and more avoidable penalties. It saw just three different Wings forwards find the net, and Philadelphia, for maybe the first time, looked like a team that deserved every bit of the 1-5 record it owns in games decided by two goals or fewer.
“I don’t think we got a full 60 minutes from everybody,” Day said. “We had the usual five or six — (Steph) Charbonneau, (Liam) Patten — guys playing hard all night. Then we had some other guys that were just passengers tonight. We’re not nearly good enough to not have 19 (players) go on at 110 percent.”
Colorado’s 64 goals in six games entering Saturday ranked ninth in the league. Its .167 winning percentage was better than only Philadelphia’s .143 mark. Day said postgame that any NLL team can beat any opponent on any given night. That’s true. But the Wings had to beat a bottom-tier team to even suggest they weren’t one themselves. Saturday’s result only reinforced that label.
Now, with next weekend’s home-and-home against New England on deck, a pivotal point in this campaign has arrived. Two losses in two days would all but sink playoff aspirations at the season’s midway point. Two wins wouldn’t guarantee anything, but it would be hard to find a more direct route out of last place in the East than a weekend sweep of a divisional rival.
“Next week’s a turning point,” Wagner said.
To steer into that turn, Riorden stressed, preparation and motivation have to begin long before gameday. Monday through Friday is a time to “better yourself,” he said. It’s a message captain Kiel Matisz shared weeks ago when he demanded the team be “uncomfortable” with its winless start. It’s a message that can’t grow stale now.
“Every game that goes by is another opportunity that we have to be better and fix the mistakes that we know that we need to (fix),” Riorden said. “In order to win a game in this league, you need to put a lot of pieces together and you need to do something that they don’t. Those all add up into wins.”
In the locker room Saturday night, the conversation focused on that equation and the fact that the coaches can only supply so many of the variables.
“You have to motivate yourself,” Day said. “This is professional lacrosse. We’re professional reminders and we’re here to prepare them to play. If you can’t get motivated when you’re a 1-6 team playing in Philadelphia in front of some of the best lacrosse fans in the world, then — This isn’t a guarantee every week. We’re a week-to-week in this league. There’s not many NLL all-stars on our team. They’re week-to-week. They know. This isn’t a guarantee. You might be here this week, but you gotta perform every week.”
Saturday’s performance started with early signs that the strong starts which propelled Philadelphia to secure its lone win and a near upset of Toronto the week prior would again take shape. Riorden opened the scoring with his first of three goals on the night. After some sloppy transition play, goalie Doug Buchan took care of things himself and launched a bomb to Charbonneau for a breakaway score. Josh Currier — who produced a hat trick as well — received a pass from Crowley behind the goal and launched himself past the pipes for the game’s best highlight. At the second timeout, the Wings led 3-0 and had allowed Colorado just four shots on net.
But the rules-abiding effort that played an equally important part in last week’s defeat of Rochester didn’t carry over into Philadelphia’s second quarter. The Wings sent four players to the penalty box, twice playing down two men, and the Mammoth capitalized. After the second double occupancy, boos from the crowd of 10,505 soundtracked Eli McLaughlin’s game-tying goal.
Neither team ever led by more than three. Wagner capped Philly’s five-goal third period — which turned a 5-4 halftime deficit into a 9-7 edge entering the final quarter — with a steal, scoop, and coast-to-coast score that illustrated why Day valued the 24-year-old’s speed as part of the return in this week’s trade of Chris Cloutier. Again, however, penalties spoiled the fourth. A minute into a Wings’ power play, defenseman Zac Reid was called for holding. The Mammoth’s McLaughlin and Kyle Killen scored the games’ two deciding goals with him in the box.
“I think this just hurts more because we won all the other aspects of the game and we took some poor-timed penalties,” Day said. “They had (four) power play goals. That’s the difference and that’s something that we can control.”
Earlier in the week, Day talked about the different parts required to get a win — transition, five-on-five and special teams. Every night, he said, you have to win two out of three, and costly penalties are the easiest way to lose that last portion. “Those come back to haunt you,” he said.
Turns out he wasn’t joking then, either.