‘We’re flying in the right direction’: The Wings open the season Saturday more than 600 days since their last game
The Wings host Panther City Lacrosse Club in their season opener on Saturday afternoon.
Three-quarters of the way through the 2019-20 season with an 8-6 record, the Philadelphia Wings were ready to make a push for the playoffs.
The Wings had notched a dramatic 12-11 road win over the Georgia Swarm and were set to begin a three-game homestand.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, wiping out the remainder of the season and canceling 2020-21, too.
“It was definitely disappointing when the season ended,” general manager and head coach Paul Day said. “But I think that the group that we put together from then to now is head and shoulders deeper and definitely better.”
With additions on offense including 2015 NLL rookie of the year and Drexel two-time All-American Ben McIntosh and a number of veterans on defense like John Ranagan, Alex Crepinsek, and Brock Sorensen, the Wings are poised to take yet another step in their third season since returning to Philadelphia.
“I think we needed a group that has some playoff experience and had not only a championship caliber, but kind of that winning mentality,” captain Kiel Matisz said. “Bringing in a couple veteran pieces that have won in this league and won in the Mann Cup in the Canadian Senior A League was important for us and we found the pieces in the right places to strengthen all areas of the floor.
“To be a little bit on the corny side, we’re flying in the right direction with our Philadelphia Wings.”
Games getting underway
Finally, 632 days after the NLL season was suspended on March 12, 2020, the Wings will return to play in front of fans at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Wings open their 18-game schedule with a two-game homestand beginning Dec. 4 when they take on the league’s newest team, Panther City Lacrosse Club of Fort Worth, Texas.
Over the course of this year’s schedule, the Wings will face off against two East Conference foes three times — the New York Riptide (Dec. 10, Jan. 23, April 2) and the Swarm (Jan. 8, Jan. 29, April 30). They will also have home rivalry games against the Buffalo Bandits (March 31), Rochester Knighthawks (Jan. 22), and Toronto Rock (Feb. 5).
“I’m sure you could see some video of us playing Rochester last season, which was pretty much Fight Night at the Wells Fargo arena,” Day said. “I think we won 17-6 just to top it off. There’s gonna be some great rivals coming back to Philadelphia.”
Players to watch
Over the past two offseasons, Day has made significant changes to the Wings in an attempt to construct a championship-caliber squad. This past July, he signed 12 players to new deals.
One standout ‘newcomer’ is McIntosh, who inked a three-year contract extension on July 6. McIntosh was traded to the Wings on July 31, 2020 and has yet to suit up for the team due to the COVID-19 pause. His six-season tenure in the NLL has been marked by offensive production — in 2018, McIntosh registered a career-high 46 goals (tied for fourth in the league), 13 of which came on the power play.
However, Matisz regards McIntosh as a special player because of his off-the-ball talents.
“He’s just really good at finding that soft spot, that sweet spot, of being open for his teammates,” Matisz said. “You blink and the ball’s in the back of your net. I’ve unfortunately been against that a couple times and happy to have it on our side now with the Wings.”
Most notably, McIntosh knows what it takes to achieve the ultimate goal of winning a league title. It’s a feat the Wings haven’t attained since 2001, long before the team was re-introduced as an expansion franchise in 2017. In 2015 and 2016, McIntosh and the Saskatchewan Rush won the NLL Champion’s Cup and earned it again in 2018 when the championship trophy was rebranded as the National Lacrosse League Cup.
Day also signed forward Corey Small to a one-year deal this past July, bringing in a key piece to the Wings’ special teams. Small, who spent the past two seasons with the Bandits, brings an outside shot that will be valuable on the left side of the Wings’ power play.
“We just have a lot of guys that are big and really good sticks,” McIntosh said of the Wings’ offense. “We have a good mix of the Matt Rambos and Corey Smalls who are a little bit more outside players who can shoot the heck out of the ball. And then we have a couple inside guys like myself and Cory Vitarelli. So it’s a good balance.”
Of the returning players to the Wings’ roster, goalie Zach Higgins stands out as one of the team’s most valuable assets. Before the COVID-19 stoppage of the 2019-20 season, Higgins led the NLL in saves (555) and ranked fourth in save percentage (.815).
“He’s blown me away at training camp,” McIntosh said. “That year that got cut short, when I was still playing in Saskatchewan, he was probably the best goalie in the league. Having a guy like that at such an important position is huge.”
Aiming for the playoffs
At the end of the regular season, the top four teams from the East and the top three from the West will qualify for the playoffs. The eighth and final spot will be granted to the team with the better record between the fifth-place East and fourth-place West teams.
The first round of the playoffs is single elimination in which the top and fourth seeds in each division face off as well as the second and third seeds. If the fifth-best East Conference team makes the playoffs, they are seeded as the fourth-place team in the West Conference. The second round and the NLL Cup Finals are best-of-three series.
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The Comcast Spectacor-owned Wings have yet to make a postseason appearance after not qualifying in 2019 (4-14, sixth-place East finish) and with the suspension of the season in 2020 (8-6, third-place East finish).
“You can never predict injury, you can never predict some of those other variables that are out of your control, but I’m incredibly pleased with the job that Coach Day and his staff have done putting together what we believe to be a team that can contend for a championship this season,” president Marc Zamarin said.
Building chemistry, even from afar
Over the past three weekends, the Wings have held training camps to prepare for the upcoming season. For McIntosh, who has been a member of the organization for over a year, those workouts marked the first time he met some of his teammates and coaches in person.
But even during the COVID-19 layoff, leaders on the Wings’ roster including Ian Llord, Matisz, Crowley, and Hickey organized regular Zoom calls to keep the team connected virtually.
“The biggest thing for me that I believe is the closest teams, the teams that I have been a part of that have won championships in the years that I’ve played have definitely been the closest connected,” Matisz said. “There was definitely like an inherent trust.
“So that was kind of the goal is not even be so much related on the Xs and Os and the systems of lacrosse, but just how do we get closer? How do we find out about people’s families and friends and what makes them tick? And then how do we build trust between teammates?”
Matisz and the team leaders took a four-pillar approach to the Wings’ Zoom calls. Each session focused on different areas, including social and team bonding, physical health, lacrosse-specific film, and game nights. The squad also hosted their own book club, reading two novels over the course of the pandemic.
Day chose “Mind of the Athlete: Clearer Mind, Better Performance” by Jarrod Spencer, a clinical psychologist who has worked with the Wings, the Flyers, and other professional sports teams. Llord selected the second book, “Legacy” by James Kerr, which dives into the New Zealand men’s rugby team, also known as the All Blacks.
“We read two books, which I don’t think happens a lot in lacrosse that you’re doing homework and reading books to stay connected,” Matisz said. “We found ways to stay connected with technology and as best as we could, we handled the adversity head-on and handled it with optimism and positivity.”