Although we’re still just five games into the 2012 regular season, one thing is abundantly clear about this Minnesota Swarm team… no one is coming into the Hive and taking it to our boys. Just ask Buffalo… the Bandits came into Xcel Energy Center a couple of weeks ago and left with their pride and knuckles dragging behind them. Or ask the Edmonton Rush… feeling so sure of themselves heading into last Friday’s game until Ryan Benesch potted the OT game winner in the second longest game in NLL history. Or ask the Rochester Knighthawks… the latest victim of the Swarms intensity, talent and focus… they limped out of here Sunday the victims of a stunning 9-6 Swarm win at the Hive, the team’s first win over Rochester since 2008. “No one’s going to come into our barn and beat us,” said Benesch during Sunday’s Toyota Postgame Report at the Iron Range Grill. “We have to make sure we win our games at home and we’ve done that.”
Last weekend was clearly a coming-of-age weekend for the young Swarm. After an offseason where half of the team was dealt or released and mostly replaced by younger players, few would have thought the team would jell so well in such a short time. But the proof is in the standings… the new look Swarm is 3-2, tied for second place in the West Division, and in every sense of the word a TEAM. “It was great for us to have four days together,” says Assistant Coach Aime Caines. “We did some stuff outside of the two games (Wild game, Mall of America trip) so that the Canadian guys could hang out with the American guys. It was a very productive weekend on all fronts.”
Offensively, most pundits expected the team to score goals. After all, the talented three-headed-monster of Benesch, Callum Crawford and Kevin Ross are all back and picking up right where they left off, with Benny leading the team with 15 goals (averaging a hat trick per game… he’s tied for third in the NLL in goals scored), Crawford netting eight goals and assisting on 25 others (he’s tied for third in assists behind two perennial superstars in Philadelphia’s Dan Dawson and Colorado’s John Grant Jr.), and Ross headlining one of the quickest sticks in the league to post eight goals of his own. But second place in the league in goals scored per game? That’s something. “We knew we kept the guys who were the keys to our offense last year and added some young guns we knew could have an impact,” says Caines. “We’re very happy with how quickly they’ve come together as a unit.”
Arguably the most impressive element of the Swarm so far this year has been the team’s defense… in particular, the goaltending. Head Coach Mike Lines and his visionary staff of assistants (Joe Sullivan, Bobby Keast and the aforementioned Caines) pinned their hopes on two rookies… 23-year-old Tyler Carlson, and 24-year-old Evan Kirk. Their collective response? Two wins for Carlson with a goals against average of 11.23 (good enough for fourth in the league in GAA) and Kirk’s stunning 46-save performance against a talented Rochester Knighthawks team last Sunday… his first win ever as a National Lacrosse League goaltender. “We expected Kirk to play this well,” says Keast. “I played against him during the summer when he played for Kitchener, and he’s very quick and is always in position to make the save. We weren’t surprised at all with how well he played in his first start last Sunday.” Neither were Andrew Watt or Benesch… they both played with “Captain” Kirk in Kitchener… or Caines. They all agree Kirk’s the real deal. “We knew he could play in this league but to only give up six goals against a team like Rochester in your first NLL start,” Caines says with astonishment. “I’m not sure if it’s a record but I’m sure it’s close to one of it’s not.”
Things don’t get any easier for the Swarm this weekend when everything they’ve learned and fought for will be put to the test against their biggest division rival… the undefeated (5-0) Colorado Mammoth. The season began with a tough 20-14 loss to the Mammoth in Colorado… but this game is at The Hive… and going 4-0 at home is worth all of the blood and sweat this team will spill. “This is a big test for us,” says Caines. “They’re undefeated and we want to catch them. If we win, we’ll only trail them by one point in the West. Plus, we go on the road for six weeks after this weekend so we want to leave our great fans on a high note with a win.”
One final point before I close out this week’s class. For proof of how this Swarm team is pulling together as a family, click on the link to the Toyota Postgame Report from last Sunday’s game against Rochester. In attendance were the Swarm players’ real families… Jordan MacIntosh’s mother, father and brother were there, as was Dan Ball’s dad and sister, also Benesch’s mom, dad and brother, Kirk’s mother and father (beaming proudly as you’d imagine), as well as the entire Suitor clan (grandfather and grandmother, mom and dad as well as Suit’s sister who was celebrating her birthday while also letting us in on one of the most heartfelt and incongruous family secrets of all). One of the key elements in the creation of this year’s team by the Arlottas and the coaching staff was to get “character guys” in uniform. Nothing could be more obvious after what we’ve seen thus far. My parents always told me… “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Well, these Swarm players are solid athletes and citizens because each and every one comes from a solid family. And that’s what makes their performance thus far this year all the sweeter.