In an arena packed with dogs for ‘Bark in the Bowl Night’, it was the Philadelphia Wings that provided the bite in a dramatic win over the Toronto Rock, 14-13, at the Wells Fargo Center.
The victory could not have come at a better time for the Wings, who improved their record to 4-9 and moved to within one game of the final playoff spot in the East Division with only five games left to play in the regular season.
It also proved to be sweet revenge for a Philadelphia team that was demolished by 10 goals less than two months ago in Toronto, a loss that spiraled into a six-game skid heading into Saturday night.
“It was definitely great,” said goalie Evan Kirk. “After the first game, [coach Blane Harrison] told us to remember that one because that hurt.”
The two organizations with the most titles in league history shared a similar game plan with their seasons on the line: live and die with their respective superstar.
National League Lacrosse points leader Garrett Billings of the Rock lived up to his billing as the league’s best offensive player, routinely fighting off double and triple teams to score diving goals or find a streaking teammate in stride with behind-the-back passes en route to a 10-point performance.
But it was former first-overall pick Kevin Crowley of the Wings who would have the last laugh, notching the game-winner with 9:07 to play in the fourth quarter.
The third-year forward for the Wings was simply too much for the Toronto defense to handle during his career night, doubling his previous season-high for goals by tallying six while also picking up his 100th career assist.
“This is the Kevin Crowley we’ve been waiting for all year,” said Harrison. “He’s had those looks all year, and tonight was the night he was able to get them to go.”
Largely on the stick of Crowley, the Wings jumped out to an impressive 5-3 lead over the Rock in the game's first 15 minutes. But despite the lead, Philly wasted no time handing the momentum right back to Toronto by allowing four straight goals to kick off the second, a quarter the Wings had been outscored 49-28 in prior to Saturday's meeting.
But with their backs against the wall, a decision by Harrison just might have saved the season.
Harrison pulled Evan Kirk, sending a message to his team that the second quarter incompetence would no longer be tolerated.
Yet just surprising as Harrison’s short leash with Kirk was just how quick he subbed him back into the game.
Less than three minutes after being yanked, Kirk was reinstalled in net despite an impressive streak between the pipes by backup Kevin Croswell.
“We got Kirk a chance to get himself back together,” said Harrison.
“I was a little jumpy,” said Kirk of his rough start. “I regained my focus and just kept battling.”
Just as Kirk regained his confidence, so did the Wings offense. The Wings scored three goals before Toronto could look up, striking three times in 48 seconds to go from a 7-5 deficit to an 8-7 lead.
After Toronto tied the game at eight, the Wings exploded for a trio of goals as the half came to an end, extending their lead to 11-8 in a half that saw Philadelphia’s highest first-half goal total in more than a decade.
“It’s a game of runs,” said forward Kyle Buchanan. “We had to stop the run and stop the bleeding and get back to what we were doing.”
Despite a furious comeback effort from the Rock to tie the score at 12 late in the game, it became evident that the Wings simply wanted it more.
Though he didn’t do much damage in the goal column, forward Garrett Thul personified the team’s heart by racing back after a turnover and making a dive Superman would be proud of in order to jar the ball lose and prevent Buffalo from scoring a potentially devastating goal.
His work clearly inspired his teammates, as veteran Tracey Kelusky scored despite taking a crushing hit to give the Wings their 13th goal of the night and Kevin Crowley tacked on the game-winner less than two minutes later by purely outrunning the defense.
Yet in a historic night for the offense, it was the defense that provided the biggest plays late in the game.
Clinging to a one goal lead, Kirk and the Wings back line held steady for the last 5:53, sacrificing their bodies and holding off an ambush from a desperate Toronto team.
“It was intense,” said Kirk. “That’s pressure. But it felt really good to get that win.”
"One game doesn’t turn it around," said Harrison. "But it felt good to get that monkey off our back."