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Digging in: Roughnecks visit Rock with teams ready to roll in opener

12/29/2013, 2:45pm EST
By Justin Millerson, Rock team beat writer and Mitch Bach, Roughnecks team beat writer for NLL.com

Watch Calgary at Toronto live on YouTube via TLN on Friday at 7:30pm ET

The Calgary Roughnecks will visit the Toronto Rock at Air Canada Centre on Friday at 7:30pm ET to open the 2014 NLL season. (Photo: Graig Abel)

The Toronto Rock will host the Calgary Roughnecks at Air Canada Centre on Friday, Jan. 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET for a matchup of 2013 regular season division champions to open the 2014 NLL season. Watch the game live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network (YouTube.com/TLN) by clicking here.

For the Rock, the team looks to move past last season's 20-11 first-round playoff loss to the Minnesota Swarm, but will have to do so with a change behind the bench.

With former coach Troy Cordingley no longer at the helm, the Rock now look to a familiar face in John Lovell to turn the page on last season's disappointing exit. Lovell served as Cordingley's assistant for four seasons in Toronto however this is Lovell's first crack at being a head coach in the NLL.

“I don't think a lot has changed becoming the head coach, you still prepare for the camps and practices the best you can. I'm familiar with most of the guys," said Lovell.

In addition to Cordingley, preparations have also gone by without former Rock alternate captains Blaine Manning and Cam Woods who both announced their retirement this offseason. Lovell recently named longtime Rock defenders Sandy Chapman and Patrick Merrill as this year's alternate captains along with Rock forward Josh Sanderson.

Much of the Rock's team on the floor will look the same with only three new faces added to the active roster. 2013 first round draftee Ethan O'Connor, Craig England and Dustin Dunn will play their first regular season games with the Rock on Friday night in Toronto.

Coincidentally, the Rock will open their season against the Roughnecks for the third season in row.

“We know they are going to be – and are – one of the best teams in the league, it's going to be a real challenge for us,” said Lovell.

“They drafted well and they have a solid nucleus returning and as do we. We have some experience for sure. I like our speed and the new players we have. It's going to be battle like most games are in this league.”

Speed and transition were called into question following Toronto's playoff debacle against the Minnesota Swarm. Minnesota, known for their speed, handed the Rock a nine-goal defeat, the largest since 2009 when they fell 25-10 to the Buffalo Bandits.

“That was a game that can happen in this league, it has happen before to the Toronto Rock on a number of occasions...From my perspective we've addressed our team speed. I think we've got some younger players coming into our lineup," said Lovell.

Those younger pros include transition players O'Connor and England, whom both at 23-years-old, have yet to play a game in the NLL.

Meanwhile, returning players and some new faces will join the Roughnecks squad to start the season. These players proved themselves in the preseason, helping the ‘Necks to a perfect 3-0 exhibition record.

“This year we went light numbers at camp like a lot of teams did,” said Roughnecks Head Coach Curt Malawsky, who is optimistic about his team’s future. “We didn’t have a lot of “filler in”, we worked a lot on our systems. [General Manager] Mike Board drafted very well, and brought in a few young guys.”

It’s important that we’ve drafted up front, and I think it’s going to be a key to a lot of teams success is to have guys who can play offense and defense.”

Some of the key selections are transition players Tor Reinholdt (first round, 6th overall) and Karsen Leung (second round, 10th overall), and the signing of free-agent defensemen Cody Hawkins, who cracked this year’s roster with an impressive preseason.

Another notable signing in the offseason was captain Andrew McBride, who will return for his 12th NLL season with the Roughnecks.

“It’s going to be a great year for us,” said McBride. “We’re looking to run the ball well. We had a good draft, got some big (players). In this league, every game’s going to be competitive.”

The Roughnecks finished last season with a 9-7 record, good enough for a tie for first in the NLL West Division. A league-leading 222 goals-for mark separated Calgary from the Stealth and Rush, rewarding the team with the Division title.

Heading away from the ‘Dome comes with a lot of challenges, especially when it’s across the country for Toronto’s home opener. “It’s one of the hardest buildings to play in,” added McBride. “We’re going to have to do a good job of maintaining our runs, and controlling our emotions early.”

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