'Bellies target balanced approach to start the season

New Westminster Salmonbellies’ general manager/president Dan Richardson is feeling pretty pumped these days.

And the success of his favourite hockey team, the Boston Bruins, is just part of the reason.

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Richardson’s Salmonbellies are about to venture on a journey that hopefully ends in a Mann Cup series, where west meets east for national lacrosse bragging rights.

Although there’s a lot of things that need to go right before that September showdown, the New West GM feels confident that, on paper, his team is on the right track.

“We’ve done the (off-season) work, now it’s up to the players,” said Richardson.

The 2019 Western Lacrosse Association season kicks off Thursday, 7:30 p.m. at Queen’s Park Arena when the ’Bellies host the Langley Thunder.

No matter how you slice it, every game is important in a short, 18-game season, he noted.

“I think the players all know what has to happen to (get to the Mann Cup),” said Richardson. “There’s definitely a sour taste left over from last year’s early exit, and this being the franchise’s 130th season we feel there’s a job we need to complete.”

Last year's shocking 4-0 sweep at the hands of Maple Ridge put a wrench in the team's plans, and a thorn in their side through the winter. Putting that in the rearview mirror, while establishing a resilience to upsets, is something that will be best tested through game action.

The recently announced signing of hometown product Kevin Crowley, who won’t be available until a month into the season, has upped the anticipation for fans. Not to be ignored was the club’s additions from eastern Canada, in the form of Austin Shanks, Darryl Robertson and first-year senior Jeff Henrick.

New West also acquired defender Justin Salt in a trade with Burnaby.

“We have pretty much all our new guys in, and I know our leadership is good at incorporating new players,” remarked head coach Rory McDade, in his second season behind the bench. “I think we’ll have a little more transition to our game, and we’ve got good depth on the backend.”

The return of Keegan Bal and Brendan Ranford, which address different areas on the wooden floor, bolster the club's all-around depth, and alleviates some of the responsibilities heaved onto the likes of Anthony Malcom and Mitch Jones. Jones, who finished second to Logan Schuss with 39 goals and 51 assists, has established himself as a legitimate power forward over the past three seasons.

Schuss, who led the league with 37 goals and 69 assists, will miss the first few weeks due to injury, Richardson believes the overall depth in the lineup can pick up any slack. The club also has talented forwards like Jordan McBride and Jason Jones looking for a shooting lane.

Defensively, the opposition has to get past Brett Mydske, Mike Messenger, Curtis Hodgson and Salt, when the latter is at full health.

McDade has full confidence in his netminding tandem of Alexis Buque and Neil Tyacke, who will be tasked in being the last line of defence.

"I'm very confident in the tandem we have," noted the coach. "We've got (Curtis) Palidwor as a coach they can talk to, and they are both capable players who can turn a game."

To some, the first few games of a season may be a chance to get acclimatized and comfortable with new linemates. Although they didn't have an exhibition game, New West wants to get down to brass tacks as soon as possible. A slow start to the season isn't on the drawing board.

“These points early in the year are as important as those later,” Richardson noted. “We want to win every series (between clubs) so you have to get your wins whenever you can.”

McDade agrees.

"The goal is to peak at the end. You always want to get off to a fast start, but we know how crucial it is to build momentum and to not let up on the gas pedal," he said.

New West rolled to a regular season title in 2018, going 15-3. But it’s the first-round playoff loss to Maple Ridge that resonates the most.

Playoff success is the focus and why the team has been able to attract the imports they’ve added.

Richardson, who grew up as a Bruin fan during the era of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, says he remains steadfastlly loyal to his teams through thick and thin.

It’s the kind of trait that gives the ’Bellies an extra boost down the stretch. Yet, while they target every game on the calendar, the big bull's eye remains on the post-season.

For the home opener, the club offers free admission to the game for New West minor lacrosse players and their parents.

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