It may only be the third game of the season but for the Toronto Rock, it feels as though this game means a lot more.
The Rock (0-2) will renew hostilities with the rival Buffalo Bandits (1-1) for the second time in three games when the two squads meet on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
The Bandits handed the visiting Rock a 13-9 loss in the season opener on December 8. Buffalo can now win the three-game season series with a victory in Toronto on Saturday.
‘Toughest deal I’ve had to make’
It will be a strange feeling at the Air Canada Centre for the Rock and their fans as the team will play its first game in the post-Stephan Leblanc era. Prior to the Christmas break, the Rock announced that the veteran forward had been traded with a third-round pick (2018) to the New England BlackWolves for transition player Sheldon Burns and a second-round pick (2018).
The trade stunned the lacrosse world as Leblanc, a Dundas, Ont. native, had been one of the faces of the Rock for over eight seasons. He was originally selected by the team in the first round in the 2009 draft and scored the winning goal for the Rock, capturing the 2011 Champion’s Cup. Leblanc leaves the Rock fourth in all-time scoring with 602 points.
“It’s the toughest deal I’ve had to make in my tenure with the team,” Rock owner, president and general manager Jamie Dawick said in a release. “This season has not started the way we wanted and we are not putting that on Steph by any means. I feel we need to improve our back end and transition game and in this league, you always have to give something to get something.”
The 26-year-old Burns is in his fourth NLL season and joins the Rock as an up-and-coming transition player who has shown offensive finesse in his game. The Whitby, Ont. native has scored nine goals from the back end in each of his past two seasons with New England
“He likes to push the ball. He fits into what we want to do out of our back end,” Rock head coach Matt Sawyer told NLL.com. “We feel his best years are still ahead of him. By no means is he a saviour and we are not asking him to be one. We just decided it was an opportunity to pick up a real quality player at an area that we need.”
Bandits aim to bounce back
Despite the Rock’s struggles to start the season, the Bandits will also be looking to put a difficult loss behind them. Buffalo was down and out early in its last game against the Rochester Knighthawks, falling behind 5-0 en route to a 21-11 loss.
What’s worse, Buffalo lost goaltender Davide DiRuscio to injury, just 30 seconds after he replaced starter Alex Buque when the team was trailing 4-0 in the first quarter. Buque had to return to the crease to finish the game.
Head coach Troy Cordingley was also concerned about his team’s effort in the lopsided loss.
“A few guys played well, but a few weren’t willing to pay the price to score a goal,” Cordingley said in a press conference following the game. “You’ve got to earn your goals. We’re not earning goals by standing on the outside.”
According to Bandits reporter Steve Bermel, DiRuscio will miss two-to-four weeks. On Tuesday, Buffalo announced the signing of veteran goaltender Zach Higgins to a one-year contract.
“Nobody feels good”
The Rock don’t have much to brag about either coming off their second game of the season, a 17-9 loss to the visiting Saskatchewan Rush.
At 0-2, the Rock and the defending-champion Georgia Storm sit in the bottom of the East Division.
Toronto’s offense has not been in sync in the first two games as the team sits last in the league in goals scored (18). Keeping goals out has also been an issue – particularly a man down – where the Rock’s penalty kill has survived just three of 10 shorthanded situations – the worst mark in the league (30%)
“It’s a huge game for us,” Sawyer said. “With our start and the fact that [Buffalo] is a division opponent, everyone knows how important this game is. It’s not the start we wanted. Nobody feels good about it. We still believe that we have the makings of a good team here. We are not [a good team] yet because we haven’t proven it. I think you are going to see a motivated team out there on Saturday.”
The opening draw is set for 7:00 p.m. ET on Saturday, December 30. For ticket information, go to www.torontorock.com.
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