Zach Higgins' NLL Resurgence All About Opportunity


Zach Higgins has a career-high .822 save percentage.

Just two years ago, Zach Higgins was paying to play lacrosse.

A six-year National Lacrosse League veteran at the time, Higgins found himself outside box lacrosse’s main circuit after a 2017 season which saw him get only 44 minutes of playing time. So, he instead opted to play for the Oshawa Outlaws of the pay-to-play Arena Lacrosse League, keeping himself in shape in case any NLL team came calling.

“I think that was a big turning point in my career,” Higgins said. “I got to spend a winter just kind of building on myself … I needed something like that to settle myself in and find that passion I had for lacrosse when I was younger.”

Eventually, a team called. The Buffalo Bandits had a hole to fill when backup goalie Davide DiRuscio suffered a midseason injury. They quickly signed Higgins, and he held on to that backup goalie position the rest of the year, as well as the following season.

Two seasons later, Higgins is playing like one of the best goalies in the National Lacrosse League.

“When I got that chance with Buffalo, I just kind of wanted to come in and fit in and help them win some games early on,” Higgins said. “Fortunately enough, I was able to turn that into another season with them. Now with that effort put forward, it’s really helped carry me into being with Philadelphia now.”

Now with the Wings, the Courtice, Ont., native is getting that elusive opportunity at a starting job and excelling while doing so. He’s posted a 9.18 goals against average, second among full-time starters, and a career-high .822 save percentage, just .002 away from Dillon Ward and Doug Jamieson, who are tied atop the league.

“He’s been our best player, probably our most consistent player, all season,” Wings head coach and general manager Paul Day said.

Day saw firsthand how capable Higgins was in cage while watching the 29-year-old keeper play summer ball in Major Series Lacrosse. But in a pre-expansion NLL, the spots for a sizable role at goalie were limited.

“We played him in the summer, and I think we had 80 shots and he had 65 saves,” Day said. “It’s just about opportunity.”

There was a chance Higgins’ time in the sun would have come a year ago with the Bandits, the squad that helped resurrect his NLL career. The team traded away Alex Buque, who had been the starter ahead of Higgins, to New England in the offseason. But just before the year began, Buffalo landed seven-time goalie of the year Matt Vinc in free agency.

The signing did come with positives for Higgins, as he got to watch and work with arguably the greatest goalie of all time. Then, this offseason, Higgins was the one traded when the Bandits sent him along with a draft pick to Philadelphia for fellow goalie Doug Buchan and a pick.

Higgins said he was surprised by the move, as he was all ready to head back to Buffalo and help the Bandits return to the NLL Finals. But it also offered an exciting possibility, a chance to truly advance his career.

“We’re pretty thankful that Buffalo gave Zach a chance to be a starter,” Day said. “I think they knew he was ready.”

Clearly, Buffalo and Philadelphia were both right in their assessments. He’s backstopped the Wings to a 7-4 record, currently the best in the East Division. He’s held teams to six or goals or fewer three times, allowing six to the Bandits and New York Riptide and four to the Rochester Knighthawks.

Higgins is traveling ahead of his teammates to prepare for games, and his focus reminds Day of Vinc. There’s comfort in his role on this squad, and his teammates have instilled added confidence in him.

“His rebound control is my favorite thing,” Day said. “He very rarely lets any rebounds out … When your goalie does that, it’s like having an extra defenseman.”

He’s helped the Wings go from a team that perennially seemed a goal or two away in Year 1 to a playoff contender in Year 2.

“Right from the get-go, everyone had a belief that we could get over the hump, win some games and surprise some teams this year,” Higgins said. “That’s kind of been our first goal, let’s play each weekend, let’s play tough, see where the chips fall and hopefully get some wins over some big teams and get to the playoffs that way. I think this team has definitely got the capability.”

Higgins isn’t the only factor in the improvement. The entire squad has gotten more time to mesh, getting a training camp they were robbed of last year due to CBA negotiations and now having a year of games as a franchise under its belt.

Brett Hickey returned from an injury that held him to just three games last year and has looked more like the player that put up 77 points with Toronto in 2017 than the one who put up 40 a year later. Kevin Crowley, the Wings’ leading scorer, has been active since the first game. Last year, he started the season holding out from New England.

American superstar Matt Rambo has taken a step in his second season, already 11 points away from his total last year, and so has Trevor Baptiste, who is winning 74 percent of his faceoffs.

“But at the end of the day, if you have a good goaltender, it sure does help you out,” Day said. “That’s the key to success in the NLL.”

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