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Wings’ Home Opener: Why It Mattered

For about a million (that’s rounded, give or take a couple million) reasons off the floor, the first game back in Philly for the Wings was important. They were able to open their season at home against a long time rival, and the Wings’ home opener was even the first game of the 2019 season for the entire league. There was plenty of hype leading up to this game, but the big question that was there was a simple one: Would people still show up to the Wings’ home opener after a four season hiatus? On Saturday, we learned the answer to this.


philly wings home opener

Yes, they would. Saturday’s attendance for the Wings’ home opener was listed at 11,023 fans. Not only is that a good number, but it’s also a great sign when you look at why. This was the first Wings game since 2014.

When the Wings moved, the writing was somewhat on the wall. They had experienced a decade of nearly continuous decline in attendance numbers to the tune of 41 percent from 2005 to 2014. In their final year in Philly, the average attendance was just 6,864, a 10 percent drop from the previous year, which itself was seven percent below 2012. And 2012 was a shocking 15 percent decrease. Things were not pretty. But over 11,000 fans for the Wings’ home opener in the Wells Fargo Center brings you back to 2008 in terms of resetting the clock. They averaged 11,605 that season, which was their last above the 11,000 mark. Big openers like this are always going to give things a boost, but the onus was then on the team to give everyone a reason to come back. And give a reason, they did.

The Wings in no way looked like an expansion team in the Wings’ home opener, a 17-15 loss to Buffalo. They were hosting the team largely considered the favorites in the East, and it was setting itself up to be a blowout that would not only silence the hometown crowd, but also give them a reason to say, ‘Well, that was fun. I’ll come back next year.’ When the visiting Bandits scored all of 30 seconds into the game, and then on two of their first three possessions, things were not looking good. But once those opening-day jitters worked their way through the Wings’ system, this team took on a new life and turned this into a high scoring back-and-forth game.

Getting the start in goal for the Wings was young goalie Doug Buchan, over ‘Big Fish’ Davide DiRuscio. Buchan was on his heels from the first whistle, and it showed. Imagine having your first NLL game involve staring down Dhane Smith running at you uncontested. Hardly a fair fight. Where Buchan was really struggling from that first whistle was with outlet passes as he tried to setup transition going the other way. Anytime he tried going over the top, it was either a turnover or created nothing close to an odd number break. But once the second quarter rolled around, there was a Steve Priolo goal for Buffalo that was about as soft as could be. That was the one that caused Buchan to head for the sideline in favor of DiRuscio, who then finished the game. DiRuscio started out great, and was the change of pace the team needed. You could argue on save percentage alone (almost 20 points higher), that DiRuscio in net all game long would have meant a win. But, that’s a whole other argument. So, let’s just stay away from that one.

Buchan was one rookie we were watching, but the other big one was lefty forward Chris Cloutier. He was picked with the expectation of no learning curve. He’s up there to produce points and work off Jordan Hall to do so. The results there? Six points each, both with two goals and four assists, which was double that of anyone else on the team. With rookies, no matter what pedigree they have, there’s always that first game or two for them to come up to NLL game speed before they really start performing. The two players in my head from recent memory who really never showed that to me were Randy Staats and Zach Currier. I now have to add Cloutier to that category. He looked comfortable out on the floor from the beginning and just did what he does best.

My favorite play from him was actually something you don’t normally see on the highlight real. There was a shot from the Wings that totally missed the cage and took a high bounce off the boards. Both teams start preparing for transition going the other way, but Cloutier was in the mix to jump and try to get the ball back. Fully extended, he reached up, grabbed the ball and almost immediately found Josh Currier waiting on the crease for a goal. When you combine that with superb shooting, there is no question that Cloutier has what it takes to be fighting for the Rookie of the Year award if he keeps this up. But, there are 17 more games to play first.

Defensively, the Wings really needed to make some big improvements, but that was already a known factor. The Bandits were able to move the ball at will against this team, and setup shots with four or five passes, crossing the floor each time. That will not setup any goalie for success at all. There were also big lapses, some of which cost them where Bandits forwards had completely open looks right on the crease and scored standing up.

If the offense for the Wings can keep this pace, they will not only exceed expectations, but they will be a contender all-year long. What will be interesting to see is how they deal with a more seasoned defense, an explosive offense like Georgia, or a team with pressuring transition like Rochester. But, one step at a time. This day was about a new beginning in Philly.

And, in nearly every way except for the final score, this was a win.

READ MORE: Check out the lacrosse Twitter world’s reactions to NLL opening day here.