Close won’t cut it in 2016.
That is the feeling of the Vancouver Stealth as they get set to embark on the National Lacrosse League season, which gets underway on Saturday night at the Langley Events Centre with a visit from the New England Black Wolves at 7 p.m.
“(The playoffs) are obviously the goal. It is why you play the game,” said Stealth general manager Doug Locker.
“Every team wants to win the championship and the first step is making the playoffs.”
The Stealth are set for their third season based out of Langley but the previous two campaigns have both ended short of qualifying for the post-season.
The team needed just a victory in their final game to qualify for the post-season last year, but came up short, losing by a single goal. They were 0-3 in one-goal contests and finished 5-13 on the season, allowing a league-high 265 goals. That works out to be 14.7 per game while the league average is 11.8 per game. The Stealth allowed a dozen or more goals in 16 of their 18 games in 2015, finishing a dismal 3-13 in those contests.
Another glaring statistic for the team was the fact if they were down after three quarters, they were not coming back: the Stealth were 0-12 when heading into the fourth quarter trailing on the scoreboard.
“The stat last year, while it is relevant, was symptomatic of a whole bunch of things that went wrong,” Locker said.
Part of the problem was that many of the times, the team was trailing by multiple goals, which forced them to abandon their game plan in an effort to get on even terms.
“My hope is we are not going to be trailing in as many games going into the fourth quarter,” Locker said.
The biggest change on the team’s roster is on the back end.
Eric Penney takes over the reins as the team’s top goaltender after appearing in a handful of games in 2015.
He is also coming off a stellar summer Western Lacrosse Association season where he was named the league’s top goalie as well as co-rookie of the year with New Westminster.
“I learned a lot about the pace of the game last year and over the summer,” he said. “It’s a lot faster than it was in junior and the ball is always moving.
“The guys are so skilled at this level that you have to always be ready and play every shooter honest each and every possession.”
Penney’s goals against average was 14.74 in 2015 as he went 1-4. While his GAA ranked worst, the promising sign was that his save percentage (.754) had him ranked tied for 12th out of the 19 goaltenders who saw action.
And if all goes according to plan, Penney’s job will be made easier with an improved defence in front of him.
“I think we are a little bit quicker,” said coach Dan Perreault. “It is a nice balance of youth and veteran guys.”
One added boost is the return of Matt Beers, who missed all of 2015 because of work commitments.
Beers and free agent signees Jeff Moleski, Ian Hawksbee and Brier Jonathan join returnees Chris O’Dougherty captain Curtis Hodgson to form the back-end.
“We gave up a lot of goals last year and I think it starts defensively,” Hodgson said.
The additions on defence and at the transition position increased the team’s depth as well as their lacrosse IQ, which should factor where it matters most, the captain explained.
“I think the moves will give us the push to get more wins,” he said.
“There is lots of anticipation,” said Garrett Billings, who returns home to Langley after the Stealth acquired him via trade in the off-season.
“Some nervous energy for not only the players, but the organization as a whole. We made a lot of changes.”
The offence was middle of the pack at 11.7 goals per game and Billings should help boost that.
He joins the returning forward corps of Rhys Duch (41 goals, 103 points), Corey Small (32 goals, 75 points), Logan Schuss (22 goals, 66 points) and Joel McCready (30 goals, 51 points).
“(Garrett) adds a different element to the way we can hurt opponents,” Locker said. “I think he brings the ability to (not only) score goals … but to feed the ball, to really open up those lefties a bit more.”
Billings should also help the team’s power play, which was sixth in terms of percentage.
Overall, the special teams suffered in 2015. Vancouver had 29 power-play goals (they scored 45 but allowed 16) while allowing 46 when a man down (opposing teams scored 52 power-play goals compared to six Stealth short-handed markers) for a special teams differential of -17. Only Buffalo and Minnesota were worse at -18.
The team also struggled with putting together a consistent 60-minute effort.
“The league is so good that you can’t let any potential wins slip away from you,” Perreault said. “You can’t let a quarter slip away and let a team get on a run. Just be consistent and the wins will take care of themselves.”
Prior to moving to Langley, the Stealth franchise had made the post-season in six of the past seven seasons but have missed the past two.
“My message to the guys this year is it is up to us to be accountable and establish that winning culture again,” Hodgson said.