After a disappointing 5-13 campaign in 2016, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2009 didn’t sit well for the Toronto Rock.
A year later, the Rock are not only back in the playoffs, Toronto has earned the right to host the East Division Semifinal.
The Rock (9-9) finished second in the East Division and are set to host the third-place New England Black Wolves (8-10) in a do-or-die elimination game on Saturday, May 6 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
The Rock ended the season with a comeback 19-15 victory over the rival Buffalo Bandits on April 29. The 19-goal outburst was a season high for the Rock but more importantly, the win was key for Toronto, which had previously dropped four straight games.
“We had been on a bit of a slide,” Rock head coach Matt Sawyer told NLL.com. “We felt that we were a better team than we had shown…We feel playing at home is an advantage. We plan on sticking around for a while.”
After missing the playoffs their first season in New England, the Black Wolves are back in the post season for the second straight year. But New England comes in losers of two straight, falling to the Rochester Knighthawks and the Vancouver Stealth in the final weeks of the season.
“I thought we played pretty well against Vancouver,” Black Wolves coach Glenn Clark told NLL.com. “It’s the nature of the league. It’s so close. I wasn’t displeased on how we played. There isn’t a lot you need to say to motivate players [heading into the playoffs]. They understand what is at stake. It’s exciting. Making the playoffs is always the goal. It’s a fresh start.”
Looking back at the two regular-season meetings, the Rock and Black Wolves can expect another close battle on Saturday. New England edged the Rock in both games this year by a single goal, winning 10-9 in overtime on March 3 in Toronto before closing out the season series with a 15-14 victory on April 2 at Mohegan Sun Arena.
“They beat us twice so we have to be prepared,” Rock veteran Brett Hickey told NLL.com. “Guys are stoked for Saturday. We went through a tough stretch losing four in a row. We have great leaders in the dressing room and veteran guys that kept us in the right direction. Guys are ecstatic about the win [in Buffalo] and being able to host.”
Despite posting a 4-5 home record this season, Hickey feels the home crowd could be the difference between the two closely-matched teams.
“[The crowd] can make or break runs, to be honest with you,” Hickey continued. “Being at home, you start to have some momentum. The fans get behind you. The guys are a bit more energetic. It’s fantastic to feed off their energy.”
From Day 1 of the season, Toronto prided itself on its strengths: Defense and goaltending.
Nick Rose was stellar between the pipes and was the league leader in goals-against average from Week 1 to 18. The Orangeville, Ont. native finished the year with a 10.82 GAA (1st), a .774 save percentage (5th) while leading the league in minutes (1,019). Affectionately known as “Rosey” to the Toronto faithful, he also contributed offensively scoring two goals and adding eight assists this season.
The Rock finished the season with the second fewest goals allowed (200), one back of the Colorado Mammoth for the NLL lead (199).
However, Rose hasn’t won his last five starts and has posted a .715 a save percentage in that span – well below his season average.
“Rosey has been great for us this year,” Sawyer said of his goaltender. “We wouldn’t be in the playoffs if it wasn’t for him. Brandon [Miller] has come in recently and played well. We feel good whoever is in net.”
The Black Wolves boast a dangerous offense led by two-time NLL MVP Shawn Evans. The 12-year veteran racked up 103 points (38G, 65A) this season, finishing fourth among all scorers. Kevin Crowley finished tied for third with 45 goals and rounded out the Top-10 in NLL points with 85.
Rock forward Tom Schreiber (33G, 61A) had a stellar season, smashing a franchise rookie record with 94 points. He finished the season with 28 points in his final five games and also set an NLL rookie record with 61 helpers this year.
The game is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET on Saturday in Toronto where the winner will move on to the East Final to face the Georgia Swarm (13-5).