December 29, 2013

New-Look Wings Show Makings of a Contender

by Neil Stevens |

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Critics who suggested that the Philadelphia Wings would not be a championship contender in 2014 because of radical reconstruction might want to reconsider.

The Wings, with eight players who weren't around last season and three who were playing a scheduled indoor game for the first time, showed in blitzing the Bandits 17-13 in their National Lacrosse League opener Saturday night that they are capable of big things.

Up front, newcomers Kyle Buchanan (three goals, five assists), Tracey Kelusky (2g, 4a), Ryan Ward (5a) and Garrett Thul (1g) meshed wonderfully with incumbents Jordan Hall (5g, 2a), Kevin Ross (3g, 2a) and Kevin Crowley (2g, 3a) in enabling Blane Harrison to record his first win as head coach.

The Wings had 68 -- yes, that's right, 68 -- shots on goal. The offense, fine-tuned by assistant coach Jim Milligan, purred.

"We had an opportunity to bring in some different kinds of players who are more experienced in the indoor game from a Canadian perspective, and we brought Millie back on the 'O' door, and he's molded those guys into a motion offense," Harrison said.

Kelusky, 38, appeared to be nearing the end of his illustrious career last summer when Buffalo opted not to re-sign him. A call from the Wings later, he's rejuvenated. Kelusky shoots from the right side. Hall shoots from the left side. They were feeding the ball across the floor to each other as if they'd played together forever. The game's turning point came in the second quarter when, with Philadelphia up 5-4, Hall scored four consecutive goals. Two of them came directly off Kelusky feeds.

"Any time you can put up 17 goals, I like our chances of winning those games," Kelusky said. "It's good to be a part of this."

The 2013 edition of the Wings was the lowest-scoring outfit in the NLL. The new Wings are better at distributing the ball in the high-contact areas in front of the net.

Buchanan opened the scoring by daringly darting to the top of the Bandits crease in traffic, accepting a perfectly placed over-the-back pass from Kelusky, faking a shot to the far side of the net and flicking the ball under the crossbar on the short side.

That was just the start. The Wings never trailed in the game.

"A couple of the guys who we brought in, they're multi-dimensional players," Hall said. "They look across the floor and if you're open they're going to hit you with the ball. Its nice playing with them."

On the back end, captain Brodie Miller remains one of the most capable veterans in the league in quickly moving the ball up the floor in transition. Returnees Brett Manney, Kyle Sweeney, Michael Manley, Chad Wiedmaier and CJ Costabile welcomed in rookies John Ranagan and Brian Megill. Ranagan (Johns Hopkins) and Megill (Syracuse) were not drafted but made the team out of tryout camps.

"They played exceptionally well given this was the first real box game they'd ever played," said Tom Hajek, the former Wings standout now coaching the defense. "They're great athletes. Everybody talks about our defense not being big-name players, but these kids are great lacrosse players, so I'm not surprised they played well."

Nobody seemed surprised either that Evan Kirk played so well in place of still-unsigned unrestricted free agent Brandon Miller. Kirk showed while sharing the job in Minnesota that he deserved a shot at being a full-time No. 1 NLL goalie. Some of his best saves were in the second half when the Bandits tried to rally.

"It's always nice to get out of the box with a win," Harrison said. "We've all talked about only three teams making the playoffs in the East, so we're off to a fast start. The boys responded in a hostile environment."

Merrill was pleased with the overall effort but, as is his nature, wasn't about to be doing celebratory cartwheels.

"We don't want to get ahead of ourselves," he said. "It was a good start for us. We had a lot of moving parts heading into the year, lots of change, some new guys playing their first games of box lacrosse, so we didn't really know what to expect. We're still trying to find our identity. But you could sense chemistry coming together with a big win like this."

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