The Philadelphia Wings (3-9) host the Toronto Rock at Wells Fargo Center on Saturday at 7:30pm ET. (Photo: Graig Abel)
After their thrilling 9-8 overtime road victory over the Minnesota Swarm last weekend, the Toronto Rock (5-7) look to continue the climb towards a playoff spot when they visit the Philadelphia Wings (3-9) at Wells Fargo Center on Saturday at 7:30pm ET.
Toronto, currently situated in the East Division's final playoff spot as the third seed, are two games ahead of the fourth-place Philadelphia Wings. A Rock win on Saturday would give Toronto a three-game advantage over their nearest threat with just six games remaining for both squads. A loss however, would further augment a three-team battle (Toronto, Philadelphia, Minnesota) for the division's final playoff reservation down the stretch.
Saturday's game will also come on the heels of a significant trade between the two upcoming opponents. Roughly one hour before the trade deadline at 3 p.m. ET on Tuesday, the NLL confirmed that the Toronto Rock acquired veteran goalie Brandon Miller in exchange for transition player Kyle Belton and draft picks. The deal marks an end to Miller's almost seven-year tenure in Philadelphia and starts yet another new chapter in Toronto’s busy book of goaltending after Bob Watson. Miller will be the sixth goalie to suit up for the Rock since Bob Watson's retirement after the 2011 season.
“It's great news for our team, [Miller] is a proven goalie in this league,” said Rock head coach John Lovell. “The great thing about [Miller] is that he's always been a professional, whether he's playing in the front door or playing in a backup role.”
“It's pretty crazy, I guess it's the nature of our league,” said Miller of playing his former team so soon after the trade. “It's going to be strange going back [to Philadelphia], but as I was saying to my wife, it will be good to get it out of the way early.”
Lovell persisted that Rose will remain the Rock's number one option in goal, but also mentioned he plans to “use both goalies” moving forward. Coming into Week 13, Rose holds a 12.33 goals against average and has been yanked from net three times thus far. Miller meanwhile, one year removed from placing second in goaltender of the year voting behind Matt Vinc, had assumed a backup role in Philadelphia behind starter Evan Kirk. The 34-year-old veteran has played a full 60 minutes just once this season.
Despite all this, ahead of the deal, Lovell is confident with Rock's situation between the pipes.
“We're looking forward to moving on here, Nick Rose is our number one goalie and it's great to know we have [Miller]... to fall back on if things are not working our way,” said Lovell. “We've got two good goalies. [Rose] played outstanding in our last game for us and he has been our number one. I don't think it's fair to him just to change that role, but I plan to use both goalies.”
The Rock will take on the Wings for the second time this season and although the teams' first meeting saw a lopsided 20-10 Toronto home victory, Lovell said he and his squad plan to throw that game out the window.
“I think that was a case of our guys shooting the ball really well that night, finding the little spots and maybe not getting the best game out of [Philadelphia's goaltenders],” said Lovell. “Those games happen, we've certainly have had them happen to us this season, too.”
In a twist, Toronto beat their prized acquisition Miller – then playing for the Wings – nine times on just 29 shots in the February 7 victory.
In other roster news, the Rock have had their hands full. On Wednesday, general manager Terry Sanderson signed free agents Kevin Ross and Jimmy Purves. To make room for all roster moves heading into Week 13, Toronto removed goaltender Steve Fryer and Mike Lum-Walker from the active roster. On Thursday, the Rock snagged longtime veteran defender Cam Woods out of retirement and signed him to the practice roster.
For Philadelphia, desperation has already set in but this game could swing the odds back in their favor to make a run at a postseason spot.
“It’s obviously a big game for both teams,” Wings head coach Blane Harrison said. “We’re battling for a spot. We’re not real happy as a team where we are in the standings but having said that, our destiny is still in our hands and it starts this Saturday.”
However, the dramatic showdown just got a little more interesting as goalie Brandon Miller was traded to the Rock for transition wing Kyle Belton and draft picks, just before the trade deadline.
“I spent almost six years there and I had a lot of fun and it was great playing for that organization— from Blane and the coaching staff straight on down to a lot of friends I called teammates for a long time— so it’ll be good to kind of get it out of the way," Miller said. "I’m really looking forward to playing close to home in Toronto.”
However, before his departure from the Wings, Harrison made sure to acknowledge that Miller was a consummate professional.
"Wish 'B' all the success in the world," he said. "Except Saturday I guess.”
But now it’s down to business for the Wings as they need to snap their losing streak during this must win game.
“This weekend is obviously 'do-or-die' for us,” Wings forward Tracey Kelusky said. “We have to kind of erase the 3-9 that is right now and move forward starting this weekend and we have an opportunity to clinch our ticket to the playoff, but we have to essentially start fresh starting now.
"Quite frankly, there’s no tomorrow and I think everybody knows that, so our backs are against the wall. And I guess we’ll see what kind of character this Philadelphia Wings is made of. I’m confident in that group of guys we have in the locker room.”
Now, with the addition of transition wing Kyle Belton, Philadelphia is hoping to right some of the mistakes they’ve been making in the past few weeks.
“We’re happy to have him,” Harrison said as he explained that Belton has familiarity in the locker room having gone to Stonybrook University with forward Kevin Crowley and as well as knowing forward Jordan Hall well.
“He’s very excited about the opportunity of reconnecting with some of his buddies from New Westminster and taking on a pretty decent role with us. I think it’s no secret that we like to run but we sometimes can’t finish in transition, but we’re hoping we can lean on him to be able to fight there for us.”
Saturday night will be a test for the Wings at how quickly they can adjust to the roster changes and how badly they want a “W” to keep themselves alive in the spot for playoffs.
“We have made mistakes consistently throughout the year,” Kelusky said. “Little mistakes that have proven costly and I think that comes with being a young team. But we need to start figuring out the pieces of the puzzle and at the end of the day, I don’t know if there’s a whole lot that needs to be said or can be said.”
As a veteran in the league, Kelusky explained that ultimately, the players have to look themselves in the mirror and decided to be accountable for themselves and their teammates.
“As a guy that’s played in the league for a long while, you just hope that that’s contagious in the locker room and I think we have a lot of guys that can start to buy into that,” Kelusky said. “But again we’re 3-9 and we have to throw that out the wayside and just look forward to what is—and the what is, is that we have an opportunity to still make playoffs and it has to start with us against Toronto Saturday night in Philly.”