As the 2021 Calendar year was winding down and the NLL delayed games due to COVID-19 concerns, few teams had as many question marks around them as the Albany Firewolves. With sky high expectations leading into this season following a relocation and rebranding from New England, the Firewolves were 0-2 and had just suffered a terrible home opening loss to the Knighthawks by 9 goals.
As the new year rolled around, they went out and picked up veteran righty forward Ryan Benesch from the Panther City Lacrosse Club, with the hopes that he could provide a spark to the offense. But as it turns out, the real key to what they needed was improving their defensive efforts and to that end, they had all the pieces they needed in house.
Over the four games of Albany’s season, there are a few points of remarkable consistency. In terms of the overall lineup, the Firewolves have been dressing seven forwards each game, with Jordan Durston, Andrew Kew, Tanner Thomson, Joe Resetarits, and Jacob Ruest being there for all four games.
The strangest lineup up front was actually in this past weekend’s game against the Wings where only two lefties were playing due to Reilly O’Connor’s addition to the COVID-19 protocol list. Statistically, the most consistent player has been Joe Nardella at the faceoff circle. Off the 88 draws so far this season, Nardella has taken 85 of them, and won 66 of those, good for 77%. That puts him 10% higher than anyone else in the league who has taken more than 1 faceoff.
Offensive production hasn’t been high this year, but it has been relatively consistent. They have scored nine, seven, ten, and nine goals in their four games. For reference, this is quite a bit lower than what they had been recording last year as the Black Wolves, but it is important to remember that this Albany Firewolves squad is definitely a different group.
Trying to dig into the point totals to see if there was a pattern emerging, there really didn’t seem to be anything too obvious. With the addition of Benesch, the righties did start scoring slightly more each game, but also having five righties compared to two lefties for the last game would do that. The shot totals side by side also didn’t seem to correlate to much, either.
So where does that leave the Albany Firewolves? Defense, but not defensive or transition scoring, but about goals allowed. In the first three games of the season, non-forwards scored just 2 goals in each. In the win against the Wings it was only one, and that was when there were only two lefty forwards dressed for the game.
Their goals allowed went from 10 and 16 in their two losses to just five and eight in the two wins. What was the change in those two games? The reintroduction of Brett Manney and Adam Bomberry to the lineup from the IR and PUP lists, respectively.
When talking about defenders, many fans tend to notice the big hits or the players running the ball up the floor more than anyone else, but Manney and Bomberry are very much stay at home defenders for the Firewolves. That’s not a knock on them by any means. Both can and do run the ball up and will push transition goals when it makes sense.
However their main objective on the floor each time is to ensure the opposing offenses are working to find shots, not dictating what they want to do. Their absence was most obvious in their blowout loss to Rochester where the Knighthawks forwards were getting inside shots from right on top of the crease for the entire game.
From their first game back in the lineup, their presence was felt. Most notable was Bomberry’s team leading 12 loose balls, but both of these players are much more obvious for how they handle their individual matchups as well as work with their teammates in loose ball situations.
Manney especially is a player that doesn’t always come up with a loose ball when he’s in a scrum, but you can almost guarantee that the other team won’t, either. That’s when you’ll see players like Tony Malcolm, Jackson Nishimura, or Colton Watkinson grab a loose ball and have a chance to get out ahead of the substitution game for a transition opportunity.
What does this mean for what’s ahead? Well for one, it’s mostly encouraging that the Albany Firewolves have their defense back onto the right track where they can not only hold Saskatchewan to just five goal, but also go down to Philadelphia and withstand a massive rally from the Wings to get the win.
This is a team that looks significantly different when you compare their first two games against their last two. Given that the next one is against Halifax, their defense will very much be put to the test. That will then lead to whether or not their offense can find its rhythm and start putting up double digit totals game in and game out.