Every game matters, especially in an 18-game season, but it was two games against one opponent that really stood out in determining the Langley Thunder’s post-season fate.
“Those two Nanaimo games were costly,” admitted Thunder head coach Rod Jensen.
“We had a lead at home and a lead on the road and if we could have pulled those two off, we would have been in good position. But we weren’t able to and it sealed our fate.”
Jensen was referring to a 10-10 tie at Langley Events Centre on June 20 against Nanaimo and then a 12-10 loss to the Timbermen in Nanaimo less than three weeks later.
In both circumstances, the Thunder were ahead with less than a period to play, up 8-5 in the former with a half period to go and then leading 9-7 with just under 15 minutes to play in the latter.
That six-point swing in the point total for both squads – Langley left three points on the table and finished the Western Lacrosse Association regular season with a 7-10-1 record and 15 points while Nanaimo is 9-7-1 for 19 points with one game remaining – helped the Timbermen qualify for the post-season while the Thunder will watch from the sidelines for a fifth consecutive August.
Nanaimo and Maple Ridge (9-8-1, 19 points) secured the last two playoff spots and there is no guarantee had the Thunder won both games that they would have made the playoffs. But regardless of what might have been, it was still a solid step in the right as the team showed they have several building blocks in place.
The Thunder went from four victories in 2017 to seven this past year while nearly doubling their point total from eight to 15.
Another big step was an impressive mark on their home floor at LEC with the Thunder going 6-2-1 after closing the regular season with an 11-9 win over the Burnaby Lakers on Wednesday night to secure fifth place in the seven-team WLA.
The Thunder managed wins over five of their six opponents, going 1-2 against the trio of New Westminster, Victoria and Maple Ridge – who are all playoff-bound – and 2-1 versus both Burnaby and Coquitlam. The only team they could not defeat was Nanaimo, registering a single point in three tries.
Besides their head-to-head record with Nanaimo, Langley also had a tough time overcoming a slow start to the season as they went 1-4 out of the gate before rebounding to go 6-6-1 over the remaining 13 games.
“No question, things are heading in the right direction, but in this league, if you have a slow start, you are not going to get it done,” Jensen said.
Langley also struggled away from the friendly confines of home, finishing just 1-8 as the visitors, something that needs to be remedied in 2019.
But considering the circumstances and the fact the team was young at virtually every position, 2018 was a step in the right direction.
“We were pretty young, there is no question we had some growing pains,” the coach said of his roster, which featured 10 rookies, eight sophomores and three third-year players.
One of those rookies was Tyler Pace, the top pick in the 2017 WLA draft who played just one game last year.
In 2018, the right-handed played all 18 games and led the Thunder with 65 points, while finishing second in goals with 30. Connor Robinson, the top pick in the 2018 WLA draft, also had a solid debut season, as the left-hander finishing third in goals (22) and points (51). The Thunder’s leading goal scorer was another lefty, JP Kealey, who had 33 goals and 52 points. Heading into the final weekend of the season, Kealey sits sixth in goals in the entire league.
Overall, the team’s offensive production shot up by 52 goals, from 131 in 2017 to 183 this summer. As a team, Langley was third in goals per game at 10.2.
Unfortunately, the team’s defence and goals against did not fare as well as the offence in improving their numbers, allowing 205 goals (11.4), which was dead-last in the WLA. It was also 23 goals more than they surrendered in 2017.
“I thought I was going to be able to get them on the same page a little bit quicker (but) I thought our defence improved and (Jake) Sundar showed some great signs in goal.”
Sundar, a rookie goaltender, didn’t dress in the first game but wound up winning the starting job, finishing the season with a 10.62 goals against average and a .793 save percentage.
Now comes the off-season and preparing for 2019.
Areas to improve include being in better shape as well as doing a better job of fighting through adversity.
“We need a little bit more grit and character in dealing with adversity,” Jensen said.
“Most of our guys come from Coquitlam or New West (programs) and they are not used to being down three or four goals in a game, they are usually up. Being down, athletes tend to think differently.”