Starting their season with two straight losses, the Rock knew this game could be a crucial point of their season.
In response, Toronto unleashed an offensive onslaught.
Adam Jones (4G, 5A), Rob Hellyer (3G, 4A) and Tom Schreiber (3G, 4A) led the Rock to a 20-13 rout of the rival Buffalo Bandits in front of 9,398 fans at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Saturday night.
After scoring a league-worst 18 goals in their first two games, the Rock (1-2) answered their critics with an offensive outburst.
“We put up a pretty good number,” Rock head coach Matt Sawyer said after the game. “We were hungry. We had a sense of urgency because of the position that we were in. [If we had lost,] it would have been a tough hole to dig out of.”
Playing against Buffalo (1-2) for the second time in three games, Toronto’s goal scoring was consistent as the team scored six times in three of four quarters. The Rock reached the 20-goal mark for the first time since January 10, 2015.
“It was a gut-check”
Jones, who was acquired by the Rock in an off-season blockbuster trade with the Saskatchewan Rush, was terrific and was a threat to score on every possession.
With a nine-point effort on Saturday, Jones continues to lead his new team – now with 18 points (7G, 11A).
“We were fighting it a bit in the first couple of games,” Jones told NLL.com. “Once we got a few goals in a row tonight, we felt the confidence grow.”
It was the first game for the Rock since trading veteran forward Stephan Leblanc to the New England BlackWolves. The message that the Rock offense needed to be better was clearly well received by the players.
“Everyone was surprised. No one knew that [the trade] was going to happen,” Jones said. “It was a gut-check. We had to find out who was playing. No one wants to leave this organization.”
Is goaltending an issue in Buffalo?
It was a night of firsts in the opening quarter as rookies Drew Belgrave and Dan Craig scored their first-career NLL goals while the newly acquired transition player Sheldon Burns (the return in the Leblanc trade) scored in his debut. Toronto jumped out to a 5-3 lead with a goal from Schreiber late in the first quarter. That was followed by Burns, who capitalized with an unassisted marker to make the lead 6-3. Immediately after the faceoff, tough guys Bill Hostrawser and Craig England dropped the gloves for a spirited tilt to cap a sequence of two goals and a fight – all in seven seconds.
The goals kept coming in the second quarter. Schreiber again had the Rock fans in disbelief as he circled the cage, lost his helmet but kept the ball long enough to beat an equally surprised Buffalo goaltender, Alex Buque.
The goal prompted Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley to replace his starter with the newly-acquired Zach Higgins at 1:16 of the second quarter. Buque left with just 8 saves on 15 shots while Higgins finished with 33 saves on 45 shots. After losing to the Rochester Knighthawks 21-11 on Dec. 23, Buffalo has now given up 41 goals against in the last two games.
“We believe in both of our goalies right now,” Cordingley told NLL TV. “Buque has had a few tough games but I think he is a real good goalie in this league. Higgy coming in and doing what he did for us was great. We kind of left him out to dry. It wasn’t really fair. We have to do a better job in front of him.”
“Our offense was selfish”
That goaltending change seemed to temporarily shift the momentum as the Bandits reeled off four straight goals – including three on the power play. Callum Crawford capped the run with his third of the game at 6:57 of the second quarter to cut Toronto’s lead to 8-7.
But the Rock pulled away for good just minutes later. Challen Rogers, who was playing for the first time after off-season shoulder surgery, ran the floor in a terrific individual effort. The former second-overall draft pick fought through a swarm of defenders to beat Higgins in transition to make it 9-7 for the Rock. Toronto scored three of the next four goals to take a 12-8 lead at halftime.
It was the first time the Rock had scored double digits this season. Only in this game, it was all accomplished in the first half.
After the Rock led 14-11 after the third, Toronto put the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter with Schreiber and Hellyer completing hat tricks to stretch the lead to 16-11.
Buffalo’s offense did look dangerous at times with Dhane Smith (2G, 5A) and Mitch Jones (2G, 4A) leading the way. But it wasn’t enough.
“When they went on runs, we all just wanted to do it ourselves on offense,” Smith told NLL TV. “Our whole offense was selfish at times.”
The two squads will meet for the final time in the regular season on April 21 in Buffalo.
The Bandits now kick off a two-game home stand starting against the Calgary Roughnecks on January 6. The same day, the Rock travel west for their only trip of the season to Vancouver to battle the Stealth.