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Make or break: Swarm visit Rock to start crucial road weekend

02/18/2014, 3:00pm EST
By Rock beat writer Justin Millerson & Swarm beat writer Maria Jollie for NLL.com

Desperate Minnesota team heads to Toronto for playoff rematch

The Toronto Rock (3-4) will host the Minnesota Swarm (1-6) at Air Canada Centre on Saturday at 7pm ET. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)

The Toronto Rock (3-4) take on the visiting Minnesota Swarm (1-6) at Air Canada Centre on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET. Watch the game, a rematch of Toronto's first-round loss to Minnesota in last year's playoffs, live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.

Last weekend, the Rock fell to the Rochester Knighthawks by a score of 17-9, which to date, is their largest defeat of the 2014 season. Now, Toronto is faced with yet another divisional test – their fourth straight – when the Swarm roll into town on the heels of a four-game losing streak.

“They're a young and athletic team," said Rock forward and top goal scorer Stephan Leblanc. "Similar to us, they've been taking it on the chin a little bit and are looking to turn things around."

The Rock, not only mired in the perils of inconsistent goal scoring, found themselves in a state of defensive disarray in last week's loss to Rochester. Over the second and third quarters, Toronto allowed 15 goals, which is more then they've allowed in an entire game prior to that point.

“I was disgusted with the result and the final effort of last week. We got off to a great start and actually had a very good first half,” said Rock head coach John Lovell. “But having said that, to give up eight goals in the second quarter and follow that up with seven goals allowed in the third, it's hard enough to beat Rochester holding them to eight or nine goals, let alone 15 over two quarters. We made too many mistakes defensively and you can't do that against good teams.”

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the loss was a 19:47 goalless stretch, at which time, Rochester was able to pot 11-straight goals. The stretch, lasting from midway through the second frame to the final minutes of the third, proved to be the game's crippling blow.

“We just took shifts off. Throughout the game, we had mental lapses and when you're playing the defending champs, you can't afford those things...when we gave them a sniff, they took it,” said Leblanc.

Despite the loss, the Rock were happy to welcome back defender Patrick Merrill, who had been absent from lineup since April 2013. Merrill was able to net his first goal on the year.

“A little bit of rust on him for sure, he hasn't played a game since last April. There wasn't much wrong with his game, I can't pin any of those [Rochester] goals on him,” said Lovell. “He'll be fine and we need his presence.”

Toronto, who will once again try to reach the .500 mark, will play Minnesota for the first time since last year's 20-11 division semifinals loss to the Swarm on home floor. The thorn in the Rock's side proved to be Minnesota's speed and athleticism in the lopsided defeat, an aspect not lost despite the Swarm's struggles this season. The Swarm start a vitally important stretch on Saturday, which will see them play five-straight divisional games.

“I think you can expect a good game from both teams, I think there's going to be a lot of desperation out there. We're going to come out ready to battle and hopefully the breaks go our way,” said Leblanc.

The Rock will end a three-game home stand this weekend before heading out west for a couple tough cross-division matches against the Calgary Roughnecks and the undefeated Edmonton Rush.

“Moving forward, I like what I saw in our practice [on Tuesday night]. We're moving on, the most important game is the next and I like our group. It's a must win game for us,” said Lovell.

Returning to the lineup this week is four-time all-star defender Chris White, who has also been absent since last season. Defender Dustin Dunn has also been moved to the active roster list. To make room for Dunn and White, the Rock have released transition player AJ Masson and defender Craig England.

The game is part of a back-to-back weekend for Minnesota as they travel to Philadelphia the next day to face the Wings for a Sunday afternoon matinee.

“We've dug ourselves into a hole,” said Swarm head coach Joe Sullivan. “A lot of things have been in question here as we have run up a real rough record.”

The Swarm are coming off a frustrating loss to the undefeated Edmonton Rush. Despite a surging fourth-quarter performance, Minnesota came up short.

“We gave up six goals in the third quarter that allowed them to get on a run,” said Sullivan. “That's a heck of a team to try and battle back from so we didn’t put ourselves in a good situation. We did answer back in the fourth quarter - just not enough to get us back to where we needed to be."

As they look forward to Friday, the Swarm are focusing on each game in succession. Although the second half of their season will see many more home games, these road games are absolutely crucial.

“It’s about taking one game at a time,” said Sullivan. “At 1-6, we can’t start worrying about what the back half of our schedule looks like, we’ve got to take this game as a must-win game.”

The key to success for the Swarm is finding the right balance of solid defensive play with a strong offensive attack. The youthful spark of a young team just might catch fire for an exciting second half of the season.

“Defensively, we’re as healthy as we’ve been all year going into this weekend,” said Sullivan. “Offensively, we’ve got a little bit of jump back in our step with some of our guys starting to find their stride.”

With time running out for the Swarm to stay in playoff contention, this weekend's games are critical for the team's postseason possibilities.

“We kind of have our backs up against the wall and it’s time to put up or shut up,” said Swarm transition player Jordan MacIntosh. “This is a must-win weekend for both our games.”

Armed with a talented group of lacrosse players and the motivation of a losing record, the Swarm hope their budding team will start to peak and begin the second half of their season strong on the road.

“We’ve got our hands full with the Toronto club,” said Sullivan “We are in a situation now where it’s must-win and that’s not a terrible situation with a bunch of resilient young guys.”

“I think we have a good group in the locker room that will be able to right the ship here,” said MacIntosh.

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