January 1, 2014

NLL Notebook: Thul Impresses in Debut

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

Despite minimal indoor experience, Team USA hopeful Garrett Thul was impressive in his debut for the Wings. (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

Garrett Thul will never forget his first NLL game. The Philadelphia Wings rookie forward scored a goal and fought hardrock Buffalo defenseman Billy Dee Smith.

The goal was a highlight reel gem. Thul barged past a defender and dove into the crease to swing the ball into the far side of the net behind goaltender Anthony Cosmo before his body crashed onto the green carpet in First Niagara Center.

''It was awesome,'' he said of the feeling he got with the goal that gave the Wings a 3-2 lead at 12:12 of the first quarter of a game they'd go on to win 17-13. ''This whole process has been a learning experience for me.

''To go out there and help get the offense working and put one home on a good goalie, it's awesome. It feels good to be producing a little bit for this team. I'm hoping I can step up my game, learn more of the box principles, and get out there and be more productive.''

It was the first scheduled indoor game for the six-foot-four and 242-pound former Army Black Knights field lacrosse star who aims to become an Army Ranger. The Flemington, N.J., native was not selected in the NLL entry draft last September and he had no box experience before attending an autumn Wings tryout camp. All of that makes the impression he made Saturday a lasting one. He appears to thrive on physical contact whether challenging for loose balls or throwing picks to help spring teammates free for shots.

His confrontation with Smith near the boards didn't last long and ended with Smith putting a bear hug on Thul and wrestling him to the floor. Each got a fight-minute fighting penalty.

''We bumped and he took (a jab) at my face so, being an Army guy, I'm not going to shy away from a fight,'' said Thul. ''I had to eventually get into one so it might as well have been in my first game. I feel like I can stand toe to toe with any of these guys. I know he wasn't the best guy to go against the first time but I know what it's like now and I can prepare myself for the future.''

Wings teammate Jordan Hall was impressed.

''I like having him on my side,'' said Hall. ''He'll create a lot of room and get into some bad spots for me. Its great playing with Garrett.''

Head coach Blane Harrison talked about the rookie's performance as he stood outside his team's dressing room as his players pulled off their sweat-soaked pads.

''He's a big lefty American kid who is picking up the indoor game very quickly,'' said Harrison. ''There's a lot of upside with Garrett. He's not afraid to get his nose dirty and he's not afraid to take it to the net, so I'm pretty happy with him right now.''

Thul is wearing 99 on his back. He's been used to wearing 9 but, with second-year player CJ Costabile having first dibs on 9, it was unavailable to Thul so he simply added another 9.

''I'm loving every second of it,'' he said of the first weeks of his Wings experience.

Adjusting to the indoor game's nuances can't be done overnight.

''Some of the principles are kind of counter-intuitive at times but I'm a player so I'm trying to get into spots that make sense,'' he says. ''The coaching staff is really good about keeping me on track. There's not a shift I come off and they're not telling me something to work on, you know, 'Try this, try that.' I'm catching on quick, I think, but I still have a ton to learn.''

Thul, 23, is back this week at West Point, where he's an assistant prep school lacrosse coach.

''My first Army job is actually a lacrosse coaching job so it's about as cushy a situation as you can get in the Army, I think.''

JORDAN HALL'S BIG NIGHT

Four straight goals in four minutes 12 seconds _ the fourth on a penalty shot _ and five on the night made Jordan Hall the scoring hero of the Wings' 17-13 win in Buffalo.

There's a positive vibe among the players, Hall says, even though pre-season media predictions weren't mentioning Philadelphia and Champion's Cup in the same sentence.

''When you're at the bottom looking up, you've got nothing to lose,'' he says. ''You read stuff and it just fuels you.

''I like our chances. I think we're going to have a good team. It's a long season but we'll try to finish, hopefully, near the top.''

TRACEY KELUSKY'S NEW NUMBER

Tracey Kelusky's usual 17 jersey number has been replaced by 63 in honor of his father, Reg, who passed away at age 63 from cancer last summer.

The new number looked good on him Saturday night when he scored two goals and assisted on four in helping his new team, the Philadelphia Wings, win 17-13 in Buffalo.

Months ago, when the Bandits informed him he'd be allowed to become an unrestricted free agent, the 38-year-old forward wondered if his illustrious career might be nearing its end.

''A little bit,'' he replied when asked if he'd considered retiring. ''It wasn't a good fit (in Buffalo). Three years and the team didn't have success, and I wasn't able to have any success there either. I contemplated that this could be it. I was fortunate that Philly came calling.''

GM Johnny Mouradian signed him and now he's more involved in the Wings offense as designed by assistant coach Jim Milligan than he was in Buffalo.

''It has revitalized me,'' he says.

Kelusky and Jordan Hall play on opposite sides of the floor and have had an instant rapport.

''He's one of the premier players in this league,'' says Kelusky. ''He shows you his stick and if you put the ball there he's going to do a lot of things. He's a quarterback over there.''

The offense is not going to put up 17 goals every night but it was obvious in Buffalo that it has the ability to show big improvement on last season's league-low numbers.

''For the first time playing, with only three or four runs together as a group, it feels as if the chemistry is building,'' says Kelusky. ''There's a lot of guys on our front head with a lot of lacrosse IQ.''

Milligan and Kelusky know each other well. They are both from Peterborough, Ontario, where Milligan has coached Kelusky in summer ball.

''He came in here to try and prove himself again _ to show he can still play,'' Milligan says of Kelusky's renewed NLL commitment. ''He did everything we asked him to do. He was good on the ball and off the ball and was a leader. He understands the game very well. We're happy to give him the platform to show that.''

MATT VINC AT HIS BEST

Rochester's Matt Vinc held the Swarm in check despite facing over 50 shots in the opener (Rich Barnes)

Rochester won its opener 8-6 despite being outshot 51-34 by visiting Minnesota, which made Knighthawks goalie Matt Vinc the primary candidate for defensive player of the week honors. Nobody cuts angles as effectively as Vinc.

''You need to cut the corner and come down the pipe at him, which is basically straight on, and get that 50-50 (look) by going left or right,'' said Swarm coach Joe Sullivan. ''We didn't make him have to guess.''

Minnesota's offense hadn't been that frustrated since a 13-6 loss to Toronto on March 23, 2007.

MEGILL AND RANAGAN GET FIRST TASTE

Philadelphia was the only team of the six in action Saturday that dared to give a defense spot to a rookie, and the Wings used two of them on their back end in Buffalo. Brian Megill and John Ranagan played well despite never having previously suited up for a regular-season indoor lacrosse game at any age level.

Megill, 23, a six-foot-one, 210-pound native of Clark, N.J., via Syracuse University, picked up an assist and gathered in two loose balls.

''It was something I'd never experienced before in my life,'' Megill said after helping the Wings to a 17-13 win in front of an announced crowd of 13,564. ''Coming out for the national anthem, the atmosphere and the physicality, it was nothing like any game I'd played in before. I definitely emjoyed playing.''

He's got a lot to learn but is an all-ears student of the sport.

''It's going to take a lot of time and effort,'' he said. ''Some of the guys having been playing for a long time while John and I are just into our first couple of months experiencing it. Me and John are the type of guys who are going to grind it out, learn from the veterans and just keep putting out our best effort out there.''

Ranagan, 22, a six-foot-three, 218-pound native of Yorktown, N.Y., via Johns Hopkins University, was credited with three loose ball pickups.

''It was a ton of fun,'' he said of his NLL debut. ''It's been a great month or so being with this team. It's a really good group of guys and the coaches are great. It was great getting the first win.''

Megill and Ranagan were invited by GM Johnny Mouradian to an autumn free agent camp in Philadelphia.

''That was my first experience with indoor lacrosse,'' Ranagan said. ''I'm on a big learning curve so I'm still learning on the fly.''

He'll adapt.

''The veterans, guys like Brodie Merrill and Brett Manney, have been helping me out a ton. I've been fortunate.''

Defense co-ordinator Tom Hajek said Megill and Ragan ''did exceptionally well in their first real box game.''

''They're great athletes,'' said Hajek. ''Everybody talks about our defense not being big-name defense but these kids are great lacrosse players so I'm not surprised they played well.''

Megill says he's enjoying Hajek's constructive approach.

''He doesn't get on your case too hard, especially with us rookies who haven't played (indoors) before. He's a good teacher and a great motivator so it's an honor to play for him.''

DYLAN EVANS ON THE BALL

Rochester's Dylan Evans had the best faceoff win percentage among players in the three weekend games who took the majority of their teams' draws.

Evans was 12-for-18 for a win percentage of 67 per cent. He usually faced Jordan MacIntosh, who was 5-for-17.

In the Edmonton-Colorado game, the Mammoth's Bob Snider was 15-for-25 for 60 per cent and Jeremy Thompson of the Rush was 12-for-24.

In the Philadelphia-Buffalo game, the Wings' CJ Costabile was 19-for-34 for 56 per cent and the Bandits' Jay Thorimbert was 16-for-32.

TWO GAMES THIS WEEKEND

FRIDAY - Calgary at Toronto, 7:30 p.m. ET (YouTube.com/TLN)

Scott Ranger, one of Calgary's best players, won't be on the floor. Ranger broke his jaw playing summer ball and if he becomes available at all it won't be until late in the season.

Rookie transition players Tor Reinholdt and Karsen Leung and rookie defenseman Garrett MacIntosh are on the active roster.

''They've got big engines on them,'' says head coach Curt Malawsky. ''They can run.''

The Roughnecks were fast last year and adding more horsepower is going to make defending them super tough.

''We're really excited to get going,'' says captain Andrew McBride.

''We know they are going to be and are one of the best teams in the league so it's going to be a real challenge for us,'' says new Rock head coach John Lovell.

Toronto had to fill spots left by the retirements of forward Blaine Manning and defenseman Cam Woods. The only new players are transition runner Craig England and defenseman Ethan O'Connor. They also have to make up for the presence of veteran defender Chris White, who was recently placed on injured reserve with a lower body injury sustained during training camp.

''I like our speed and the new players we have,'' says Lovell. ''Any team that is going to be successful this year has to have a good transition game.''

One of the positive traits of a veteran-laden Toronto team is player discipline. Stupid penalties are a rarity.

''We really understand that if we let teams get power plays we're going to get burned,'' says forward Garrett Billings.

SATURDAY - Vancouver at Colorado, 9 p.m. ET (TSN2 in Canada and ESPN3 in the United States)

Who will start in net for the Mammoth?

Look for rookie Dillon Ward to get the nod. Tye Belanger started the opener last Saturday but was replaced by Ward when Edmonton took a five-goal lead with 3:48 remaining in the third quarter. Ward did not permit a goal during his first 17:11 in the nets and in all he stopped 10 of the 12 shots he faced. That relief effort kept the Mammoth in a game they wound up losing 13-10 to visiting Edmonton.

''We'll make the decision at practice on who we're going to start,'' coach Bob Hamley said during the NLL's weekly coaches' conference call Monday.

Who will take faceoffs for the Stealth against Bob Snider?

Vancouver coach Chris Hall admits Snider is going to win more than he loses. He always does.

''We're going to move it around a little bit,'' says Hall, opting to get the job done by committee.

The game features two of the top goal scorers in lacrosse: Vancouver's Rhys Duch, who had an NLL-best 45 last season, and Colorado captain John Grant Jr., who scored 38.

''He's going to get his points,'' said Hall. ''What you try to do is try to limit the number of opportunities he gets so he doesn't have a 10- or 12-point game. If you try to double up on Jr. he's going to dump the ball to Adam Jones. And now they've got a cannon on the other side in Drew Westervelt and if you ignore him he's going to fill the net.''

There is no easy answer on how to defend in a league where 25-goal games are the norm.


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