J. J. Pearl remembers last year's home game against the Philadelphia Wings as if it were yesterday. The Thunder goalie learned a lesson that February night, one he hopes will help him leave a lasting impression on the Wings when the Major Indoor Lacrosse League's two-time defending champs visit the Baltimore Arena tomorrow night.
"I remember the game vividly because [Gary] Gait had a breakaway in the first quarter and he threw like 60 fakes on me and I tried to follow each of them. Finally, I fell to my knees and he lofted it over my head," said Pearl, who was named game MVP after making 36 saves in the Thunder's 15-11 season-opening victory over the Boston Blazers.
"I sprained my knee on the play and the crowd was oohing and aahing because they couldn't figure out how Gait scored. But it was all because I was trying to react to the shot instead of being patient and holding my position.
"That night, I vowed to myself that I would never flop around like that again. If they're going to beat me one-on-one, they're going to beat me standing up."
The Wings have beaten the Thunder almost every way imaginable during their 10-year rivalry in the MILL. Philadelphia enters tonight's game having won 10 straight against the Thunder. The Wings haven't lost in Baltimore since 1987, the league's inaugural season.
To rub salt in the wound, Philadelphia, which owns a 16-3 lead in the series, ended Baltimore's hopes of earning a playoff berth last season by downing the Thunder, 15-12, in the regular-season finale at the CoreStates Spectrum.
"We're sick of losing to the Philly guys," said Pearl, a 6-foot, 225-pound fitness consultant who, oddly enough, learned lacrosse while growing up in Boca Raton, Fla. "Last year, we did a pretty decent job of containing Gary [Gait] and [All-Pro Tom] Marechek but Philly brings a lot to the table."
One of those players is Wings goalie Dallas Eliuk, a five-time All-Pro selection and one of three MILL goalies that Pearl tries to emulate.
"I've learned a lot about the indoor game from watching films of Eliuk, as well as [former teammate] Ted Sawicki and Kevin Bilger," said Pearl, who replaced Sawicki last season when he went down with a leg injury.
Thunder coach Skip Lichtfuss, who drafted Pearl out of Penn State in 1992 while serving as general manager of the now-defunct Pittsburgh Bulls, said Pearl is "an outstanding competitor with tremendous commitment."
"His competitive nature, by far, is his biggest attribute," said the third-year coach. "The only negative is that he hasn't played as much as the other goalies in the league, but the more repetitions he gets, the more he learns."
No one has to tell Pearl who's coming to town.
"A lot of guys on the Wings live in Baltimore and we all play club ball together, so it's a matter of pride," said Pearl. "Finally, we're taking pride in our defense this year. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it's not me, it's we."
Opponent: Philadelphia Wings
Site: Baltimore Arena
Radio: WJFK (1300 AM)
Outlook: Philadelphia hasn't lost at the Baltimore Arena since 1987 and the Wings have won 10 straight against the Thunder. But Baltimore won its opener and Philadelphia will be playing on back-to-back nights after falling to league nemesis Buffalo, 15-12, last night. The Thunder (1-0), which got four goals from Brian Kroneberger (Loyola) and 36 saves from J. J. Pearl in its opener Dec. 30, will face one of the MILL's most efficient goalies in Dallas Eliuk and will have to contain an attack led by All-Pros Gary Gait, Tom Marechek and John Nostrant. The Wings lead the series, 16-3.