The Calgary Roughnecks are legitimate contenders for the 2023 NLL Cup.
Surprise, surprise …
At least it is to many outside the club.
And that sentiment from the sport’s so-called gurus has served to help fuel the Roughnecks to a record 13-win campaign and a belief in themselves with playoffs and another run at the National Lacrosse League championship just hours away.
“I really don’t care about what they’re thinking — I don’t care if they wrote us off before or write us off now and think we’re overachieving,” declared Roughnecks head coach Curt Malawsky, ahead of Saturday’s start to the NLL post-season — a one-game West Conference semifinal against incoming Panther City Lacrosse Club (10-8) on WestJet Field at Scotiabank Saddledome (7:30 p.m., TSN/TSN.ca).
“I don’t look at a lot of stats,” continued Malawsky. “We haven’t looked at the scoreboard and the standings all year long. So we’ll play in the moment. I think that’s been the secret to our success.”
It’s no secret any more that the 13-5 Roughnecks are for real.
No other team in Calgary’s NLL history has met with such accomplishment during a regular schedule.
Not the 12-win crew last coached by Malawsky in 2014, when Dane Dobbie led the league with 51 goals and was named a second-team all-star alongside teammate Curtis Dickson and first-teamer Shawn Evans was the circuit’s top assist man with 79.
Not the 12-win squad headed by Dave Pym in 2012, when Mike Poulin was named the NLL’s top goaltender and Evans, Mike Carnegie, Jeff Shattler, Geoff Snider and Curtis Manning enjoyed shout-out seasons.
And not the 12-win championship side of 2009, when coach Troy Cordingley could lean on superstars, such as Dobbie, Shattler, Kaleb Toth, Tracey Kelusky and Josh Sanderson, and warriors, such as Malawsky himself.
Perhaps it’s then shocking to some when comparing this year’s edition to those star-studded lineups.
“To be honest, it doesn’t shock us,” said Roughnecks transition star Shane Simpson. “We know what we have in that locker room, and I think a lot of guys were talking in the off-season that we had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.
“Curtis Dickson and Dane Dobbie — those guys are great players. But you know in losing those guys (over the last two off-seasons), there’s 15-20 shots a game that free up and maybe the ball gets shared a little bit more. We bolstered our back-end a little bit, and we knew our goalie (Christian Del Bianco) could have an MVP-type season, so we knew what we were going to be coming into this year. So we weren’t that surprised.”
Not even a little bit?
“You could say we’re surprised, I suppose,” said Roughnecks GM Mike Board. “But I think we built it from sort of the back-end rather than having a superstar offence that could bail you out of situations. We had to say, ‘Well, we’ve lost some scoring up front, so let’s build a team that doesn’t let the ball into our net.’ So that’s the way we did it. And you want to hold teams to under 10 goals and you want to score 12, so that’s kind of the philosophy that we went in with. And you need buy-in from everybody.
“And we got that.”
They got it in spades, to be sure.
While they no longer feature the likes of Toth, Evans, Kelusky, Poulin, Dobbie and Dickson, the Riggers have a found success behind a new generation of talents, who are as dogged and determined as they come.
Del Bianco is an NLL MVP front-runner with a league-best .810 save percentage among full-time goalies and a sparkling 9.28 goals-against average to go with it.
He’s protected by and works smartly with the likes of Manning, Eli Salama, Reece Callies, Jeff Cornwall, Zach Currier — the 2022 NLL Transition Player of the Year — and 18-goal man Simpson.
And up front, captain Jesse King and his first-time 100-point contribution leads a committee featuring 74-point-guy Tyler Pace and 32-goal-man Tanner Cook.
All told, it’s a hard-working group that’s left quite an impression on plenty of lacrosse minds.
“It’s impressive from the player standpoint,” agreed Board. “I mean … they went out there and played hard every single game. It’s part of the identity that they play with. We won some tight ones and lost some tight ones, but I don’t think this team ever showed any quit. So good on them for getting 13 wins.”
Making it no surprise they’re in contention for the NLL title.
“We have done our right to get into playoffs,” added King. “We’ve earned our opportunity to get in the playoffs, and I think that if we play the way that we know we can play, then there’s no ceiling for us.”