PHILADELPHIA — The first three adjectives Paul Day used to describe his team during the preseason were young, aggressive and fast. Now, as the Wings’ approach the middle third of their 18-game schedule, it appears the head coach/general manager was not bluffing. Philadelphia has played its best lacrosse when its fresh legs had some extra juice after halftime.
But as the Wings (0-5) kick off a crucial four-game homestand at the Wells Fargo Center — one that concludes with a home-and-home weekend against New England — speed can not help them outrun the facts. They are a rookie-laden team aiming to shake loose of a winless start to its inaugural season. With each passing game, the chance to revive playoff hope dwindles.
So, ahead of Saturday’s 7pm ET rematch with Toronto (4-1), Kiel Matisz issued a challenge. The Wings’ captain does not want to sugarcoat reality. He wants his teammates to face the facts.
“We can’t be comfortable in this scenario,” Matisz told NLL.com in a phone call this week. “We have to be uncomfortable in order to improve, because 0-5 is kind of uncomfortable.”
The task of leading an incubating Wings team is in some ways not that different from Matisz’s day job as a district sales manager for Frito Lay. Just as he might check in with his associates during a workday, he’s almost constantly communicating with teammates during a gameweek. He calls each one at least once every two weeks. That’s about 12 calls a week. For 20 or 30 minutes, they talk about what the team could do better. They discuss how the player could improve. They share what matters off the floor, too, and for Matisz that most recently includes his eight-month-old son.
This week, Matisz took the discomfort associated with the bottom of the standings and applied it to everything a player must do to ready himself before the team reconvenes for Friday’s practice. That player’s training must push him out of a comfort zone, because if he’s comfortable with where Philadelphia stands as a team, “there’s something wrong,” Matisz said.
“I want to know what you’re doing to get us better,” Matisz said. “…It’s, ‘What are you doing and how passionately are you doing it?’
Matisz’ sense of urgency is one that came from the top down. Day no longer wants the Wings to just play fast. He wants them to do everything fast. Philadelphia will practice and warm up with pace and purpose. Quicker preparation, quicker start once the game-clock is on, Day hopes. If the alterations produce, the Wings could snip at the slow starts that have forced them to attempt epic comebacks nearly every week. They have been outscored 20-7 in first quarters. Every week, Matisz feels that an extra quarter would grant them enough time to earn a victory.
“It seems,” Day said, ”that we’re a team that needs to be punched in the face and be behind the eight ball to actually play well.”
The one time the Wings didn’t trail after the opening period? Earlier this month against Saturday’s foe, the Rock. The two teams entered the second quarter tied at one goal apiece. As a close contest played out, neither side led by more than three. The Wings lost their eventual advantage during the final minute of regulation and fell in overtime.
“That was our best consistent effort,” Day said. “We had pretty much 58, 59 consistent minutes. It really shows that it takes a full 60 minutes, or your best game, to compete in this league.”
It was the best defensive showing of the season for a Wings’ unit bolstered last week by the acquisition of veteran defenseman Eric Shewell. But a repeat performance will require betterment against Toronto’s top offensive trio. Tom Schriber and Adam Jones netted five goals each. Rob Hellyer dished three assists. More consistent goaltending, Day said, will help combat those “world-class players;” Although Wings goalie Doug Buchan had 51 saves that game, his teammate Davide DiRuscio owns slight edge in save percentage this season.
Shore up those issues and Philadelphia has some things working in its favor. Rookie transition Trevor Baptiste, at 96-for-142 (67.6 percent), quickly became the league’s premier faceoff presence. Kevin Crowley, acquired the morning after the Wings left Toronto, put in five goals in two games. But he needs help. All seven forwards who see the floor this weekend, Day said, must to score.
Maybe more desperately, the Wings crave production on the power play, during which they have scored at an 11.8-percent clip (2-for-17). No NLL team this year has fared worse in man-up situations. On his conference call this week, Day even joked about declining penalties as if his team was playing football.
“We’re not happy with our results,” he later said more seriously, “but we’re encouraged by our efforts and our resiliency.”
The Wings have not yet imploded despite the struggles. They lost a key offensive piece to injury and made a trade to fill the void. They have played awful first quarters but salvaged second halves. And although he’s felt tension during times of adversity with other teams, Matisz said this group reacts differently. Maybe it’s youth. Maybe it’s talent. Maybe it’s character. Just don’t confuse the lack of chaos with a sense of comfort, because there is no room for such a feeling in Philadelphia right now.