NLL: Halifax Thunderbirds flying high to start the season

Halifax, Nova Scotia – Dec 02, 2022: National Lacrosse League game between the Halifax Thunderbirds and Philadelphia Wings at the Scotiabank Center in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Trevor MacMillan/Halifax Thunderbirds)

If you’re looking for inspiration that a new year can be the new you, then don’t look any further than the Halifax Thunderbirds. Last year, they got off to a hot start winning eight out of nine games. But they lost four in a row in March and dropped seven of their last 10 games, including the playoffs, to end the year. In their first two games this year they have outscored their opponents 38-19 and broken their own goals scored in a game record twice.  

“I think the guys are really motivated this year to try to get back some of the losses we had last year in that middle stretch that left us in a bad situation going into the playoffs,” said the team’s head coach, Mike Accursi. “The guys are motivated and determined to win a championship this year.” 

One of the most glaring improvements early this season has been their offence. It has taken the Thunderbirds two games to score the same amount of goals that they achieved by their fourth game last year. The Thunderbirds have implemented a “family-style offence’” which prioritizes moving the ball and allowing everyone to score instead of relying on a few players. The result has been that five players have over 10 points in two games. 

“We know we’re tough to play against when that ball is moving and swinging and not getting stuck in one guy’s stick,” says Halifax’s captain Cody Jamieson, who has four goals and 10 assists this year. “We feel we’re a more dangerous team when six or seven of us score one, two or three or more goals than one guy scoring seven goals and everybody else getting maybe one or not even.”

Leading the team in scoring is Ryan Benesch, who came back to Halifax after being claimed by Panther City in the expansion draft last season and finishing the year in Albany. He is tied for third in the league in goals with eight and points with 16. The Thunderbirds didn’t want to lose Benesch at the time but opted to protect younger players. 

“Having (Benesch) come back, it felt like he never left, it felt automatic. He came in the dressing room and it felt like he’s been there the whole time,” said Jamieson. 

“Benny is a natural goal scorer,” said Accursi. “The guy has just phenomenally soft hands, and the way he shoots, he never shoots super hard, but he is so accurate and just has a great touch and find around the net.” 

Right behind Benesch in team scoring is Randy Staats, who has five goals, 10 assists for 15 points. He’s never played for Halifax. Like Benesch, he was a member of Panther City but never played for them because a torn right ACL injury kept him out the entire year. That, combined with missing a year-and-a-half because of the NLL shut down due to the pandemic, caused him to miss nearly 1,000 days. The two-time 90-point scorer is picking up where he left off. 

“Randy is such a great feeder, and he draws a lot of attention because if you don’t go to him he’s going to score goals and if you do go to him he’s going to pass,” said Accursi. “So he makes everybody around that right side better. And that is something we kind of missed a little bit is that right-handed ball carrier that can be a solid playmaker and a scoring threat.”

“The scary part is he’s getting better,” said Jamieson. “Once he gets comfortable with having to deal with a new team, a new offence, playing lacrosse at the NLL level again, he’s going to keep getting better and better as this year goes on.” 

The offence has deservingly stolen the show. But the defence and goaltending have been solid, giving up 9.5 goals per game, tied for third-fewest in the league. The Thunderbirds started a different goalie in both games. Accursi reassured Warren Hill is their number one goalie and liked his performance against Philadelphia in the season opener. But he wanted to start rookie Drew Hutchison against New York to see how the 18th overall pick in 2021 would do against NLL competition. 

“We wanted to give him an opportunity to get some early time to give us an idea of what we have, but to also give the guys confidence if anything were to happen, we can put Hutchy in the lineup and nothing should change,” said Accursi. “I think he played fantastic and made some great saves and kept us in parts of that game.” 

Halifax takes on the championship finalists, the Buffalo Bandits, in Buffalo on Friday. It will be an excellent test to see if the Thunderbirds are a force to be reckoned with early this season. Halifax played the Bandits twice last year during the same weekend in March and lost both 16-11. 

“We’re excited where we feel our team is going to go this year,” said Accursi. “We’re coming into a good stretch of our schedule where we get lots of big tests. That’s what we want, we want to beat the best, and we want to be the best.”