As the Swarm made their way into the locker room holding a 6-5 lead against the Toronto Rock this past Sunday afternoon at the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena, a message had been made clear to those in attendance.
“Even though it was a scrimmage, our guys wanted to prove a point to the defending champs,” Swarm Assistant Coach Aime Caines said.
The game ended in a close 15-13 loss, but the final score is beside the point.
Minnesota tested the Rock in every facet of the game including on faceoffs and loose balls, two areas where the team struggled at times last year. Across the board, the Swarm played as a cohesive unit. Players stuck up for one another during several fisticuffs throughout the course of the game and the team displayed good team chemistry.
All in all, a two-goal loss to the defending champs will now serve as building block for a young team that had 13 rookies see floor time on Sunday. Minnesota also limited the likes of Ryan Benesch, Callum Crawford and Andrew Suitor to only one half of play.
“The guys viewed the Toronto game almost as a win,” Head Coach Mike Lines said. “Not that we won the game numbers wise, but more because we stayed with one of the best teams in the NLL over the last two years when many expected us to struggle.”
Sunday’s contest also came only hours after the Swarm’s exhibition game in Rochester the night before, where it fell 19-15 the Knighthawks. “We saw everyone on our end gel together and it was a big step forward from the first game in Rochester to the Toronto game,” Lines said. “We shored up a lot of things.”
While the Swarm wanted to leave the preseason with two wins, the coaching staff said the team’s main goal was to evaluate player performances and build team chemistry. Minnesota’s roster was split up differently in both contests and its lineup varied quarter to quarter. The coaches made sure that they got a good look at the entire team, particularly at its younger players. Players who were jockeying for a roster spot were given a fair shot to showcase their skills on the floor. The veterans, who were expected to show up and perform, did just that, even if it was in limited minutes.
“The intent was a team building weekend,” Associate General Manager Joe Sullivan said. “We would have loved to have come out with two wins or even with a split for that matter, but that was really the small piece to the agenda. The bigger piece was getting these guys familiar with each other since there are so many new players that will be a part of this year’s roster.”
When the team wasn’t playing, players spent a lot of time together – more so than in years past – to develop camaraderie as a group. “I’ve never been part of a team like this before where everybody has just immediately gelled together and earned each other’s respect,” forward Ryan Benesch said. “We all have each other’s back no matter what happens.”
Benesch’s comments say a lot about a team that features a lot of new faces this season, 16 to be exact. And for a team that has hardly played together, one must tip their hat to this year’s group; they’re making every effort to be the hardest working team in the NLL in 2012.
Sunday’s scrimmage in particular speaks volumes about the team’s mentality this season. To give his younger players some extra playing time against Toronto, Lines sat the team’s top point scorers (Benesch and Crawford) in the second half. Suitor, likewise, was limited to one half of play, and made his appearance in the second. That left Minnesota with a lot of young and inexperienced players out on the floor against one of the league’s most talented teams.
The end result though was still an ultra-competitive contest. Minnesota managed to build early leads of 5-2 in the first quarter and led 6-5 at halftime. Jamie Shewchuk led the Swarm on offense with five goals, while Crawford dished out a large number of assists.
“It’s encouraging,” Benesch said on the team’s play against Toronto. “These guys know what it takes. We drafted well and we have some really good players and guys that play with lot of energy and grit. We gave them a run for their money that’s for sure.”
The game’s intensity level escalated when an unintentional high-stick from the Swarm was delivered to a member of the Rock in the second quarter. And when confronted to fight, the Swarm didn’t back down. “Andrew [Suitor] took it upon himself to step up and make sure the Swarm was well represented,” Sullivan said. “I think the combativeness was a testament to how hard we worked.”
On Saturday night, Minnesota’s power play against Rochester found the back of the net six times and certainly was one of the bright spots in the loss. The team also converted on several transition opportunities. “Last year a majority of our goals came at even strength,” Caines said. “Our transition play was there with Andrew [Watt] and Tyler [Hass]. We have to improve on this in 2012. ”
On the flip side, if you watched Saturday’s game, you’re well aware that Minnesota also gave up 19 goals to Rochester. Coach Lines admitted afterwards that the team had some mental and communication mistakes and that those issues would be addressed in Sunday’s scrimmage.
Lines said the team improved vastly in those areas against the Rock, and a large part of the team’s success was due to rookie goalie Tyler Carlson. Carlson allowed only five goals on 30-plus shots in the first half against one of the league’s best offenses. “Tyler played a great half,” said Lines, who gave the goalie high praise afterwards. Having depth at the goalie position is never a bad thing in the NLL, and as it stands now, the Swarm has three quality goaltenders capable of seeing minutes this season.
There is still a lot of learning to come for many of the Swarm’s younger players this season. In saying that though, the coaching staff has been cautious to not throw too much at the young guys at this point.
“We didn’t over coach them, we wanted to really see what they could do when asked,” said Sullivan, when questioned about the team’s approach this past weekend. “As we get further along and pay a little more attention to the smaller details, these guys are going to compete hard every week to gain respect in this league.”
Saturday’s contest in Rochester served as a great test for the Swarm’s rookies, as a packed house filled The Blue Cross Arena, making the game feel more like a regular season contest.
One of those players making the jump to the big stage for the first time was rookie forward Corbyn Tao, who admitted afterwards that he felt a few nerves playing in front of a large crowd. Those nerves proved to be a nonfactor however. At the end of the game, Tao left the arena with his first career hat trick in the NLL. These are the kind of results that have the coaching staff extremely excited.
Rookie F Joel Henry also notched a hat trick in the contest and fellow rookies F Jay Card, T Jordan MacIntosh and D Dan Ball also found the back of the net.
“It was a great experience for a lot of the guys that hadn’t played in this league before to get their first real game-like situation under their belt and realize what it takes to be successful in this league,” Benesch said.
Minnesota’s offense notched 15 goals against the Knighthawks – a feat it only reached or surpassed twice last season. “We didn’t do that (score 15 goals) a whole heck of a lot last year,” Sullivan said. “We played three quarters against Matt Vinc and he is one of the best goalies in the league. It’s an encouraging thing.”
With its revamped roster, the Swarm will open a new era in team history this season and it’s one that Swarm fans should be extremely excited about. The exact direction Minnesota plans on taking becomes clearer on Thursday when the team releases its much-anticipated 23-man roster.
Benesch admitted that the team will have its fair share of doubters over the coming weeks, but that it will only serve as motivation for the team. “A lot of teams in this league look at what we’ve done in the offseason - trading away the players that we have - and are taking us for granted,” he said.
Minnesota certainly took another step in the right direction this past weekend in its quest to find the 23 players that will best represent the franchise in 2012. Now it’s up to the coaches to decide who best fits the bill.
“They’ve all made it tough,” Sullivan said. “We couldn’t be more proud of the veterans, draft picks, and our walk-ons. We’ve moved a lot of real good players out of our lineup and yet we’re very excited about the players we brought in to replace these veterans.”
Only one question will remain after Thursday.
Is it January 14th yet?
Video courtesy of torontorock.com