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Rock waiting for Rush

03/19/2013, 12:00pm EDT
By NLL.com's Rock beat writer Justin Millerson and Rush beat writer Brad Bartko

Sunday matinee features the league's two hottest teams in Toronto and Edmonton

The Toronto Rock (8-3) host the Edmonton Rush (6-5) at Air Canada Centre on Sunday at 3pm ET. (Photo: Dale MacMillan)

With a playoff spot already clinched, the Toronto Rock (8-3) shift their focus towards earning home field advantage in the postseason when they host the streaking Edmonton Rush (6-5) at Air Canada Centre on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET. Watch the game live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.

After last weekend’s 13-8 victory over the Philadelphia Wings, the league determined on Tuesday that the Rock did clinched a playoff berth and will enter the spring tournament for the 13th time in their 15-year history.

Toronto will take on Edmonton for the second time this season on Sunday. In the team’s first meeting in Week #2, the Rock were victorious in a low-scoring 10-9 affair. After a shaky first half, which saw the Rock down 4-2 heading into the second quarter, they held the Rush to only three goals in the entire second half.

"They’re a great team,” said Rush goaltender Aaron Bold. “They have the best record in the league right now and the most potent offense in the game. They have a great transition and the big thing is just eliminating their transition and playing them 5-on-5 because their offensive threats are really good on the power play. So we just have to stick to our guns and what we have to do and play the game."

Edmonton has won five of their last six games as they visit Toronto, who has won three of their last four, for a matchup of the league’s hottest two teams.

“I’m very excited for it,” said Toronto Rock general manager and assistant coach Terry Sanderson. “We’ve always considered them to be the hottest and best club in the West [Division] in the last few weeks.”

Coming out of a bye week, Edmonton beat the Rochester Knighthawks by a score of 11-9 last weekend in a rematch of the 2012 NLL Championship Game.

“It was a big win for us,” said Rush head coach and general manager Derek Keenan. “We played with quite a bit of energy considering [the bye week] and came out strong early…we managed to get the job done and get another big road win for us.”

"Regardless of the win, doesn't feel as good as if we would have won last year,” Bold said. “We have been playing very consistent as a team, this weekend is a very pivotal situation for us, and we are looking to come out on top."

Bold faced only 33 shots in last weekend’s win and has faced less than 40 shots in three of the team’s last six games.

"The defensive unit has been playing very well and it makes my job very easy,” Bold said. “I'm able just to step out and challenge those outside shots. I think if we keep on doing that, it's going to prevail on our side or our favor. We need to keep on sticking to how we’re playing and just go from there.”

Some credit for Edmonton’s surge undoubtedly has to go to rookie forward Mark Matthews. The 23-year-old is having a banner rookie campaign by leading all rookie scorers with 51 points (31+20) through 11 games. His 31 goals ranks third in the NLL, only two tallies behind Washington Stealth sniper Rhys Dutch for the league lead.

“It’s going to be a true test offensively and defensively,” said Rock forward Kasey Beirnes.

While Edmonton has found success offensively – their 140 goals are good for third-best in the league – the Rush have also found their groove on defense. The Rush have allowed only 120 goals this season, second only to the Rock.

“We definitely understand they have probably one of the better defenses right now, they play very similar to what we play – a lot of pressure and they’ve got some big bodies,” Beirnes said. “We’ve got to get the ball moving and our feet moving and hopefully everyone shows up to play.”

With an 8-3 record, the Rock are poised to have one of their best regular seasons in their history. Toronto has finished the year with more than ten wins just four times. The Rock would have to win three of their next five games to grab 11 wins on the season which, if it were to happen, would be their best record since their 12-4 record in 2005.

Despite Toronto’s impressive record, Sanderson said there are still areas that need improvement.

“There are things we still need to sharpen up a little bit,” he said. “As everybody will attest, it’s a work-in-progress and we are still striving to be better in a couple of areas. We still are not at the level we need to be at to be successful.”

Heading into Week #12, Toronto rings in another weekly award. Rock transition player Kyle Belton  won Rookie of the Week after scoring his first career goal, adding two more for good measure, and collecting seven loose balls in Toronto’s 13-8 win over the Wings last weekend.

The Rush will play back-to-back games this weekend as they visit the Buffalo Bandits at First Niagara Center on Saturday night before traveling to Toronto to face the Rock for the Sunday matinee to end their five-game road swing.

"Back-to-backs are always tough to talk about, especially the second one,” Keenan said. “But we know what they’re about and they’re playing extremely well with the best record in the league. They present a lot of problems for most teams and we will do our best to be prepared. Obviously focus on Saturday’s game [first], but with a quick turnaround, be ready to go Sunday.”

With two wins this weekend and a loss by the Colorado Mammoth (4-7), the Rush can clinch a playoff berth.

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