The Toronto Rock (5-2) host the Calgary Roughnecks (4-2) at Air Canada Centre on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET. (Photo: Brad Watson)
As the halfway mark of the NLL regular season approaches, the standings are starting to take shape. On Friday night, the league's two first-place teams collide as the East Division-leading Toronto Rock (5-2) host the best in the West Calgary Roughnecks (4-2) at Air Canada Centre at 7:30 p.m. ET.
“I'm expecting a very intense game as always,” said Toronto Rock general manager and assistant coach Terry Sanderson. “[Calgary] is one of the teams we enjoy playing the most because it brings out the best in us.”
Watch the game live on TSN2 and TSN Mobile in Canada, ESPN3 in the U.S. and on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network outside of North America.
“It will be a battle,” said Roughnecks head coach Curt Malawsky. “It’s a good litmus test for our guys to see where we stack up against the top team in the NLL.”
Friday will mark the second meeting between the two clubs this season. In the season opener on Jan. 12, the Rock defeated the Roughnecks by a score of 13-11 on Calgary's home turf.
“We know Calgary is going to be very pumped up to play us,” said Rock transition player Jesse Gamble. “We beat them in their home opener and they're coming into Toronto, a lot of their guys are from that area. It's going to be easy for them to be pumped up and excited for the game, so we are just going to have to match that.”
Malawsky said Toronto likely knows a lot about Calgary’s defense having already played once, but that his team will be ready to adjust.
“We are going to have to make some systematic changes and tweaks along the way to try and keep them guessing,” he said. “We will prepare for one thing but we will be able to turn into a chameleon and change it up later in the game if we need to.”
Roughnecks transition player Geoff Snider referred to the Rock as being “technical” and “well-coached.”
“They are a team that if you make a lot of mistakes, you’re in trouble,” he said. “We’ve got to play our best game of the year going in and make sure that we are composed and ready.”
The Rock will also have to account for Roughnecks star forward Dane Dobbie, who did not play against Toronto in their previous meeting due to suspension.
“When we played them the first time, they didn't have [Dobbie] in the lineup, so I think it's going to affect their offensive game somewhat,” Sanderson said. “But we know Calgary is good. We have to worry more about how we play."
In just four games, Dobbie has posted 22 points (12+10) against the Rock. Calgary has a 3-1 record with Dobbie in the lineup as he missed last weekend’s game against Edmonton due to family commitments.
“Dobbie is an emotional leader,” Malawsky said. “He is one of the purest goal scorers in the league. A young guy but he’s got that veteran savvy and that championship pedigree under his belt. We missed him and we are more than happy to have him back.”
For the Rock, a big emphasis has been put on the transition game. Sanderson said that while it has been effective in creating chances, he'd like to see more shots go into the net.
“[Shots] are only good if you are scoring,” he said. “I think that's what this game [against Calgary] could come down to – the transition game.”
“It’s going to be very important for us that we don’t play into their strengths and that we try to nullify their transition stuff,” Malawsky said. “We play to our strengths.”
The Roughnecks are coming off a back-and-forth 9-8 home win over the Edmonton Rush.
“For us it was the first time we’d really been in a game like that – we have either been trailing or we have had a lead,” Snider said. “To go back and forth like that, it was great for every facet of our team.”
The Rock come into this game with a little bit of a sour taste in their mouths. Last week, Toronto lost to the Minnesota Swarm 13-12 in a hard-fought overtime bout. Minnesota's Tyler Hass scored the knockout blow 4:30 into the overtime period.
“It had a little bit of everything down there [in Minnesota] and unfortunately for us we didn't get the job done,” Sanderson said. “We had lots of chances, including three real good ones in overtime, and Tyler Carlson made a few good saves on them.”
A bright spot in the loss was the play of newcomer Scott Evans, as the veteran forward scored two goals against the Swarm, one of them coming in the fourth frame to tie the game at 10-10.
Evans was signed by the Rock to a one-year agreement this past offseason after his release from Edmonton. So far this season, Evans has posted 14 points (8+6) in six games played. But Sanderson said the best from Evans has yet to be shown.
“Scott [Evans] has played okay, he's still got room to go, but I think a guy like that only comes every once in awhile,” Sanderson said. “We are expecting more from Scott to be honest. I don't think it's just goals we need from him, I think he needs to get a little more involved in the dirty areas and bang some bodies.”