Watch Bandits @ Rock on YouTube via TLN on Thursday night, starting with a Google+ Hangout at 7 p.m. ET. (Photo: Bill Wippert)
The Toronto Rock (6-2) host the Buffalo Bandits (4-3) at Air Canada Centre on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. ET. Watch live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network, starting at 7 p.m. with a Google+ Hangout with Philadelphia Wings captain Brodie Merrill, who will also host a second Hangout at halftime.
Fans will be able to submit questions for Merrill before and during both Hangouts through social media outlets such as Google+, Facebook, Twitter (using the #askBrodie hashtag), and YouTube.
The Rock earned a hard-fought 14-12 road win against the Bandits in early February when captain Colin Doyle scored three fourth-quarter goals, two shorthanded, and finished with eight points (4+4) in the back-and-forth game. Buffalo transition player Mark Steenhuis had two fourth-quarter goals in the losing effort while Aaron Wilson scored a hat trick in the losing effort.
With the league’s best record, the Rock have won four of their last five games and are coming off a physical 17-12 home win over the Calgary Roughnecks, who were leading the West Division standings at the time. Goalie Nick Rose continued his strong play this season while Garrett Billings had six goals and 11 points (6+5).
“It felt pretty good last weekend," Billings said. "Anytime you play like that, you can have a little bit of fun – it’s fun to score goals, anyone who has played the game can tell you that. I prepare the same way every week and get out and take a lot of shots, so hopefully they fall this weekend.”
The Rock have come on strong lately on the offensive end by scoring 43 goals in their last three games, including 17 against the Roughnecks. Against Calgary, Toronto went 9-for-12 on the power play, the most man-advantage goals by one team in a single game since 2007.
“I’m a big believer in team chemistry," Billings said. "You need to have people in the right places and you get that when you’ve had the same group for the last few years. We get better every game that goes on. You've just got to keep plugging away knowing you have the ability to put the ball in the back of the net.”
Toronto had a bye last weekend, giving the team some well-earned rest.
“It was a very well received week off,” said Rock general manager and assistant coach Terry Sanderson. “We had the first eight games in what seems like a very short amount of time. We are banged up, like most other teams in the league, so [it’s nice] to be able to take a weekend off and not have to go anywhere or practice I know the boys appreciated it.”
But the bye week didn't thrill Billings as much as most other players.
“I was a bit disappointed that we had the weekend off,” said the Rock forward. “I thought we had a real good outing against Calgary and you want to keep that momentum as much as possible. It’s tough when you play that well and the next weekend you have to sit down and watch everybody else play.”
Also coming off a bye weekend, Buffalo’s last game was a 10-6 road win in Rochester after a 15-7 home loss to the Knighthawks the weekend before. Bandits goalie Anthony Cosmo was named Defensive Player of the Week after making 54 saves on 60 shots in the win for a .900 save percentage, the highest by an NLL goalie in a complete game so far this season.
“Obviously Cosmo played really well in Rochester,” said Bandits head coach Darris Kilgour. “I thought our defense played pretty well in front of him [too].”
The Bandits will return to Air Canada Centre for the first time since their dramatic 7-6 playoff loss to the Rock in the 2012 East Division Semifinal. Buffalo led 6-2 at halftime but were shut out in the second half. Bandits captain John Tavares seemingly scored the tying goal in the final seconds but it was waved off when replay showed his teammate in the crease. Buffalo has been eliminated by Toronto from the NLL playoffs in each of the last three seasons.
“I don’t think they need any more motivation,” Kilgour said. “But yeah, the guys that have been on the team the last couple years I know it’s in the heads that [the Rock] have put us out [of the playoffs] the last [three] years.
“It’s fun going against a good team; it’s a measuring stick.”
The 44-year-old Tavares, the NLL’s all-time leading scorer, has missed Buffalo’s last three games, including the home loss to the Rock, after aggravating a calf injury that has nagged him the last two seasons.
Kilgour confirmed that Tavares will return to the lineup against Toronto on Thursday. But that does not necessarily mean he’ll play in both of Buffalo’s games this weekend, as Kilgour wants to be sure to ease the Bandits’ legend back into form.
The Rock will see Tavares for the first time and will have to adjust to Buffalo's evolving defensive scheme.
“It’s funny because Buffalo is playing [a type of defense] different than what they’ve brought for the last three years," Billings said. "They are not playing the same pressure 'D'. I don’t know if we are going to know where the weak links are. They’ve only been playing that for a week or two. We are going to have to explore and find those options on how to get open.”
NLL Commissioner George Daniel hosted a live Hangout on YouTube on Wednesday, Feb. 20, which marked the first NLL event on Google+. Fans submitted questions for the Commissioner on social media, both before and during the event, using the #asktheNLLcommish hashtag. Watch the Commissioner's Hangout here.