The Toronto Rock visit the Edmonton Rush on Sunday afternoon after Saturday's 13-11 road win over the Roughnecks in their season opener.. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
Almost eight months removed from Toronto's playoff loss in the 2012 East Division Finals, a healthy and rejuvenated Rock team starts the 2013 National Lacrosse League season on the road with a little extra motivation.
The Rock look to build off Saturday night's season-opening 13-11 road win over the Calgary Roughnecks when they take on the Edmonton Rush on Sunday at 4 p.m. at Rexall Place. Sunday’s matinee will air on the NLL on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network. Watch the game live by clicking here.
“We are very excited about our team, we thought we were close last year and we have the same mentality this year,” said Rock general manager and assistant coach Terry Sanderson. “We got a real solid club, we just have to go and prove it now.”
After a season that saw a number of devastating injuries, including the likes of Blaine Manning being absent for the majority of the season with a broken collarbone, the Rock persevered and entered the playoffs atop the East Division with a 9-7 record.
After defeating their rival Buffalo Bandits in the first-round of the 2012 playoffs, the Rock saw their season end with the 17-13 loss to the Rochester Knighthawks.
“I think we played well in that last game, but we ran into a hot goalie and that's just how it goes,” said Toronto Rock forward Garrett Billings, who set an NLL single-season record with 82 assists last year.
Over the course of the season, Colin Doyle, Blaine Manning, Rob Marshall, Ryan Sharp, Drew Petkoff, Rob Hellyer and others missed significant playing time. Sanderson said this had an effect on the team’s chemistry and consistency last year.
“From a coaching standpoint, you would like to be consistent,” Sanderson said. “We dealt with a lot of injuries last year. We’re not using it as an excuse, but at the same time, it does change things.”
This weekend will be the first time in franchise history that Toronto starts the season with games on consecutive nights.
“I think we got one of the toughest draws in the league for the first weekend going back-to-back,” Billings said.
Against Edmonton and Calgary in 2012, the Rock managed a 3-1 record. However, Billings spoke of the difficulty of facing a couple of teams that could look a little different this year.
“Edmonton is no joke anymore, defensively they are real strong and Calgary, obviously, they have proven [each] year that they have a ton of talent up front, they can beat you a bunch of ways,” he said.
The Edmonton Rush bolstered their roster by drafting Mark Matthews with the first-overall pick in the 2012 NLL Entry Draft.
“[Edmonton is] going to be a handful, no question about that,” Sanderson said. “They have done a great job with the kids they drafted.”
Toronto's most notable offseason move was signing forward Scott Evans to a one-year agreement. The right-handed forward tallied 47 points (24+23) in just 12 games for the Edmonton Rush last season. With the signing, so comes questions of his conditioning, but Sanderson said he has seen nothing but positive play from the veteran.
“Everyone is making note of the conditioning of [Evans'] game that he had to pick up and he's done just that,” he said. “He's come in and had a couple of great exhibition games doing what we expect him to do and that's put the ball in the net.”
A key part of Toronto's success last year was no doubt the play of Billings, the Rock's offensive star. In a season for the ages, the 26-year-old tallied 114 points (32+82), second to John Grant Jr.'s historic total of 116 points last season. Billings was humble about his point total last year and said he's excited to play with a healthy roster.
“Last year we had a ton of injuries and it was just kind of circumstance that the ball fell onto my stick,” Billings said. “This year we are going to have a healthy, full lineup and one of our team's strength is if you key on me, you got [Colin] Doyle, or [Blaine] Manning and others to worry about.”