Arena Lacrosse League Enjoys Successful Debut Tripleheader

by Stephen Stamp

The Arena Lacrosse League couldn't have asked for much more from its opening day.

The new league's first ever game, held at Oshawa's Tribute Communities Centre at 1 pm Saturday, saw a solid crowd witness an absolute thriller as the Toronto Monarchs rode the brilliant goaltending of Craig Wende to a come-from-behind 12-11 win over the Paris RiverWolves.

That was just the start. The crowd was strong again as St. Catharines got 4 goals from Chris Attwood to edge the Peterborough Timbermen 9-8 in the middle game of the league's Showcase Event, which faced off at 4 pm.

The nightcap wasn't as close, but only because of an astonishing performance under unusual circumstances by Zach Higgins allowed the Oshawa Outlaws to keep the Six Nations Snipers at bay enough to take a 13-8 win. And again, the crowd was impressive for the first day of a new league.

Paris threatened to run away from Toronto. The RiverWolves held leads of 5-2 and 8-5. The gap would have been substantially larger if not for Wende's excellence. The 2016 OLA Sr B most valuable player showed why he earned that honour; while Paris held a huge edge in quality scoring chances through much of the game, they simply couldn't solve Wende often enough to put the Monarchs away.

It came back to haunt them when Toronto finally started to find its offence, going on a 5-goal run in seven minutes spanning the third and fourth quarters. That gave the Monarchs an 11-9 lead and they wound up outscoring the RiverWolves 5-2 in the fourth quarter to earn their 12-11 win.

The play was a bit ragged, with many dropped or poorly thrown passes and some fumbling and bumbling in transition play: nothing out of the ordinary for a season opener when players haven't been in game situations for four months or so. The teams got tidier as the game went on.

Toronto featured a balanced attack, with four players earning either 4 or 5 points: Seth Laidlaw and Matt Lyons each had 2 goals and 3 assists while Luke Laidlaw and Jordan Dance each had 3 goals and 1 assist.

The RiverWolves' Jamie McMahon led all scorers in the game by accumulating 6 assists. McMahon was excellent in all facets of the game. Jr B scoring phenom Logan Holmes added a hat trick and Spencer Pyke—still with two years of junior eligibility remaining—had 2 goals and 3 assists for Paris.

In Game 2, the ball handling was a bit sharper but both defences executed well and both goalies played steadily to keep the scoring under double digits for each club. Six of the game's 17 goals came on the power play, four by St. Catharines, and Peterborough added a shorthanded marker make the game heavily influenced by special teams.

Timbermen goalie Nolan Clayton actually did a pretty good job against Chris Attwood given that the all-time leader in CLax scoring had a handful of breakaways and open looks; he could easily have doubled his 4-goal output. Matt Crough scored 3 goals and 1 assist while Tim Bergin added 2 goals and 4 assists for Peterborough.

Justin Pychel and Jordan Houtby led a physical ShockWave defence that limited Peterborough's chances and made the Timbermen pay a price when they did work their way inside. Peterborough produced a solid team defensive effort led by Riley Campbell, Peter Rennie and Doug Utting. Campbell in particular was all effective all over, working well in man to man and slide situations and pushing the ball up the floor. Lapses in discipline played a big role in Peterborough's eventual loss; beside the three power play goals they allowed, the Timbermen spent lots of energy killing penalties.

Still, scoring the first two goals of the fourth quarter pulled them even at 8-8 with 4:29 to play in regulation time. Bryan Neufeld quick-sticked home his second goal of the game 1:46 later for what proved to be the winning margin.

The story of the day played itself out in Game 3. The Oshawa Outlaws had selected Zach Higgins in the draft and were looking forward to having him start their season opener after he was released by the Toronto Rock. Higgins committed to the team, determined to keep playing and prove that he is good enough for the National Lacrosse League. As things turned out, he got a chance to prove himself earlier than he had anticipated.

The Calgary Roughnecks needed another goalie after starter Frankie Scigliano was suspended for their home opener Friday, forcing 19-year-old backup Christian Del Bianco to make his first NLL start. While Del Bianco's future appears bright, his starting debut was a memorable one for all the wrong reasons. He wound up stopping just over 60% of the shots he faced and Higgins was pressed into relief duty. Higgins was excellent, making 34 saves on 39 shots (an .872 save percentage) to let the Roughnecks come almost all the way back from an early deficit to lose by just one goal.

It seemed unlikely that Higgins would be playing Saturday night as well. The Roughnecks moved him to the practice roster, though, meaning that he was eligible. Then it was just a matter of heading back to Toronto on a 7 am MT (9 am ET) flight and getting ready to play a few hours after getting home. Not only was Higgins at the arena in plenty of time for warmup, he played a spectacular game for the second night in a row in two different provinces.

Oshawa ran out to a 7-2 lead and even one of Higgins' few lapses in the game, allowing a long shot to skip past him with one second left in the first half when he and most of the Outlaws' defence seemed to relax a bit too early, left them with a four-goal lead after 30 minutes.

It was a good thing for the Outlaws that Higgins was so sharp, because a change from starter Warren Hill to Chase Martin seemed to spark the Snipers. They improved their situation from 7-3 to 9-8 thanks to contributions from a pair of players at opposite ends of the experience spectrum. Roger Vyse is a wily veteran at 35 years of age. Travis Longboat still has three years of junior eligibility remaining. Vyse had three assists in the run that pulled the Snipers within a goal—two on goals by Longboat and one on a goal by his cousin Rayce. Longboat had three goals.

Rayce Vyse is an interesting story, too. He's 33 years old but hasn't played lacrosse since he was in junior. Six Nations GM Jake Henhawk had talked to Rayce about coaching the defence, but Vyse had another idea: he wanted to play. He's kept himself in shape and looked good in the exhibition games to force the Snipers to keep him around. Vyse didn't look like it had been over a decade since he last played.

The Outlaws may have benefitted hugely from Higgins' excellence between the pipes, but they did their share on offence and in transition. Five different players scored 2 goals each, including Mike Triolo who added 4 assists to lead all scorers in the game and tie for the league scoring league after each team's first game.

Ryan McMichael had a full day. He provided colour commentary for JVI Sports Network in Game 1 (the games were recorded and will be loaded to JVI's YouTube channel) then got himself ready for his return to lacrosse in Ontario after moving back from British Columbia late in 2016. He joined the Outlaws just before the season began and had 4 assists Saturday.

Oshawa's defensive group showed plenty of speed: Zach Tomkinson looked like he may be the fastest player in the league and buried a nice breakaway goal while Nick Andreoli was flying throughout the game and scored twice—including an empty netter—while adding an assist.

It was a banner opening day for the ALL: close, exciting games; solid, enthusiastic crowds; lots of speed and a pretty high level of lacrosse with some standout performances showing there are players ready for a shot at the NLL when the pro league's teams are in need of them. Higgins, Wende, Campbell and Tomkinson in particular looked like they could step onto an NLL carpet tomorrow and fit right in. Of course, Higgins had already shown that the night before. But Saturday he got to be part of an historic day in lacrosse as part of the debut of the Arena Lacrosse League. It felt like a day that he and many others will remember.