The first time the Wings and Bandits met this season — a 17-15 Buffalo win in which Philadelphia had a chance to tie in the final minute — Wings head coach/general manager Paul Day opened up his postgame statement with a spot-on assessment of the victor on that mid-December night.
“I kind of think Buffalo is one of the teams to beat,” he said. “They could be the best team in the east. We’re a very young team and we made some young mistakes, but it’s a great learning experience for us.”
Nearly three months later, the Bandits (9-2) sit atop the NLL’s eastern division and are aiming to solidify home-floor advantage throughout the playoffs. The Wings (2-8), though, are still learning. They’re tied with Rochester for the league’s worst record and are in danger of falling out of the playoff race if they don’t turn things around soon.
A date with the league’s best is not the ideal foothold to begin a climb out of the bottom, but it’s what the Wings will get Friday when Buffalo travels to South Philly for an 8 p.m. ET faceoff at the Wells Fargo Center, the last of three meetings between the two teams this season. The game can be viewed in the Philadelphia market on PHL17 and streamed anywhere on B/R LIVE.
Let’s take a look at some of the storylines to watch for on Friday night:
The Wings played nine games in eight weeks after a Week 2 bye, a grueling stretch that saw them go 2-7. So, after a home-and-home with New England on Feb. 16 and 17, two weeks off were badly needed. The time away helped Philly reset and get healthy, with defenseman Frank Brown among those who had been sidelined due to injury.
“We were pretty banged up,” Day told reporters on a conference call this week. “…It was a really nice break. The first week guys get refreshed and then got a practice in last week.”
With fresh legs, expect the Wings to start strong, a key to some of their best showings this season. It would be a disappointment if they didn’t, especially in front of a home crowd hoping for an upset.
Cloutier comes home
So much has changed since these teams’ earlier meetings. In the opener, Chris Cloutier scored twice and paced the Wings with six points. He notched three assists in the second match up on Jan. 19. He’s now a Bandit.
The Wings decided to move on from Cloutier last month because the No. 2 overall pick didn’t fit after Philadelphia traded for Kevin Crowley. The deal was a surprise to many. After the Wings’ first game post-trade, a frustrating 12-10 home loss to Colorado, a reporter asked Day why the Wings shipped away Cloutier when the goal this season had been to build and bond a young offensive unit.
“I don’t think Chris had scored in four or five games,” Day said before pausing. “You know what? Chris plays for the Buffalo Bandits, so I’m not going to talk about him anymore.”
It will be fascinating to see if Cloutier, with a goal or two against his former team, can give Day something to talk about this weekend.
Stay out of the box
The one thing Day mentioned this week as an important factor in facing Buffalo was that the Wings had matched up well against the Bandits in five-on-five play. He’s right. The Wings won the full-strength portion of the season opener 15-13 but allowed four power-play goals. They failed to score in each of their seven man-up opportunities between the two games against Buffalo. The Bandits score on just over half of their power plays; the Wings, at 27.5 percent, are last in the league. And only Calgary kills penalties at a clip better than Buffalo’s 62.2 percent.
All of this is to say that staying out of the box to play even with the team that scores the most goals per game (14.73) and allows the fewest (10.82) could go a long way for minimizing the Wings’ deficiencies against a superior opponent.