“Goaltending is a monster factor in the NLL,” says
Washington Stealth Head Coach Chris Hall.
“It’s undervalued a bit in terms of how goaltenders can win games for
you. A hot goaltender can carry
you a long, long way.”
Each week in the National Lacrosse League, only eleven goaltenders get the starting nod. Finding one netminder that a team can rely on for 16 games is a rarity, but Hall and the Stealth believe they have two.
Matt Roik and Tyler Richards are entering their second season as teammates with the Stealth. Last year, they split time in goal and led the Stealth to their second West Division Finals appearance in three years.
What makes their situation unique however, is that they split time between the pipes in the summer as well. The pair has also played two seasons together for the New Westminster Salmonbellies in the Western Lacrosse Association (WLA) and, for the second straight year, they led the Bellies to the Mann Cup Finals.
One would think that constantly squaring off against the same guy for a starting job would create some animosity towards one another. But for Roik and Richards, it’s just some healthy competition.
“It’s great,” says Roik. “I mean, obviously we both want to be on the floor. But a lot of goalies can become complacent. It’s good to have someone push you. It’s very motivating.”
“Competition brings out the best in a competitor,” adds Richards. “We both want to be the number one, but we also want to see each other succeed.”
Roik, 29, is the elder statesman and a well-traveled veteran of the NLL. The Dunnville, Ontario native has spent time on five NLL teams since entering the league in 2002 (New Jersey, Anaheim, Philadelphia, Chicago and the Stealth). One of NLL Insider’s top 50 players going into the ’09 season, Roik was an NLL All-Star game starter in 2007 and won the 2003 Mann Cup with the Victoria Shamrocks (WLA). “Throughout his career, he’s proved to be one of the best in the NLL,” says Hall about Roik.
Richards, 22, doesn’t have the same experience, but isn’t exactly unproven. He won the 2008 WLA Outstanding Goalie of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards. In his NLL rookie campaign last season, Richards earned NLL Insider’s All-Rookie Team honors after recording a 3-1 regular season record and providing the spark that led the Stealth to a playoff berth. “Normally, you don’t see young goalies step in and be great from the start,” says Hall about Richards. “But his calm demeanor will allow him to be a force in this league for years to come.”
In the 2009 WLA season, the pair alternated starts throughout the regular season and playoffs. Richards earned a second-team All-Star nod after leading the league in goals against average (7.55) and save percentage (.824). Right behind him in the goalie rankings was Roik, with a 7.71 goals against average and .802 save percentage in 50 more minutes played.
“He can reflect on his personal experiences,” says Richards on having a more experienced Roik in his corner. “He’s played for good teams and bad teams. He’s experienced the highs and lows. He never lets me get down on myself.”
“There aren’t a lot of goalie coaches out there,” adds Roik. “It’s good to have someone to work close with and share. Tyler’s willing to ask questions; he’s always looking to improve. But I learn a lot from him, too. He’s mature beyond his years.”
While some may feel pressure of a top goalie breathing down their neck, both Roik and Richards agree there are a lot of advantages to having a high quality goaltender on the bench watching while the other is on the floor.
“As the backup, you have to know your role,” says Richards. “You point out things you see from the other team as a game goes on.”
“I sit there and hope they fire a couple short side on him,” says Roik jokingly. “Obviously, we help each other out. If he succeeds, then the team is succeeding as well.”
For the past two years and four lacrosse seasons, Roik and Richards have been side-by-side in search for a championship, whether it be a Mann Cup in Canada or the Champion’s Cup in the NLL. Both appear to be focused on bringing that search to an end with the Stealth in 2010.
“We have all the pieces in place to win an NLL title,” says Richards. “Anyone who doesn’t expect that isn’t in this for the right reasons.”
Roik is on the same page. “I want nothing less than winning a championship. I want to be holding that trophy with Tyler at the end of the year.”