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Hanging in the balance: Wings face must-win game against Rock

04/07/2014, 10:05am EDT
By Wings beat writer Julie Kayzerman & Rock beat writer Justin Millerson for NLL.com

Philadelphia looks to avoid elimination, Toronto tries to regroup without MVP

The Toronto Rock (6-9) host the Philadelphia Wings (5-10) at Air Canada Centre on Saturday at 7pm ET. (Photo: Graig Abel)

It’s win or go home for the Philadelphia Wings (5-10) in their flight to the playoffs as they visit the Toronto Rock (6-9) at Air Canada Centre on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET. Watch the crucial matchup live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network as the Wings try to stave off elimination from postseason contention.

With the two teams tied 1-1 in their season series, this game not only completes their regular season run together, but holds the faith of Philly’s future in the playoffs, forcing Saturday night to replicate a playoff game itself.

“There's no question it's a playoff game,” Wings head coach Blane Harrison said. “We've seemed to be in this situation since last time we played Toronto in Philly, so we’ll probably have to take the same approach.”

And their approach last game certainly did the trick as the Wings inched out the Rock 14-13, following a huge comeback, with six goals from forward Kevin Crowley.

“They threw a lot at us and broke a lot of windows on us,” Harrison said. “But I think if we play our game and stick to the things that we want to stick to and are consistent in that effort… we can break some windows of our own.”

However, despite the strong offensive nature of Toronto’s gameplay, they have recently suffered a huge setback as Rock forward Garrett Billings tore his ACL in their win against Vancouver, just after marking his 100th point— putting him out for the rest of the season.

With Billings out, Toronto will have to make-up for the loss of their points, assists and shots on goal leading player, as his injury leaves them with big shoes to fill.

“Even with the unfortunate news of Garrett, they still have guys in the lineup that can throw up some big numbers,” Harrison said. “That's a concern and I think we would be getting ahead of ourselves if we didn't put some emphasis on that and try to limit the damage from their offensive players.”

Harrison added that in addition to defense, their offense needs to come up big for them in Toronto.

“Obviously on our side we need to put some numbers as well,” Harrison said. “We can’t expect to win 8-7 games. We’re not that kind of team right now. We're going to have to have one of those games where we can put up 13 or 14 ourselves and give ourselves a chance.”

However, despite the obvious pressure felt by the players of the Wings, defenseman Brett Manney is in high spirits alongside the comforting vibes from his teammates.

“It's been pretty positive for the most part and we have a great group of guys in the locker room who all get along with each other, so the chemistry there is not a problem,” Manney said. “With the past couple of weeks I felt like we've had this mentality with our backs against the wall…but now it's really do-or-die time.”

And that it is, as the Wings need to find a way to make up for their shortcomings earlier in the season that stemmed from their continuous pattern of being unable to play a full four quarters. There’s no time for excusing an inexperienced team now—it’s a battle of heart and Saturday we’ll see who wants it more.

“We're looking forward to competing on Saturday and guys rising to the occasion because of the type of game and the atmosphere it is,” Manney said “Playing in Toronto against a very talented team—we welcome the opportunity to play and keep our season alive.”

After a long needed convincing win over the Vancouver Stealth last weekend, the Rock have earned a chance to clinch the third and final playoff spot in the East Division with a win.

In a season that has seen many bumps in the road – the most recent of which a stretch that saw the Rock win just two games in seven tries – a convincing 17-9 win over the Stealth could be just what the doctor ordered heading into the home stretch of the regular season.

However, in that game, Toronto lost their top player Garrett Billings to a devastating torn ACL injury after he went down awkwardly in the second frame.

The league's top scorer, after evaluation, has since been ruled out for the remainder of the year putting a stop to what would've been a season for the ages. 

With 101 points to date, Billings was on pace to break the single season scoring record as well as looking poised to earn his first NLL scoring title.

“You can't replace what [Billings] does for us, so we're going to have to do things a little bit different and try to get some production,” said Rock forward Josh Sanderson.

The Rock responded in great fashion outscoring the Stealth 6-3 over the third and fourth frames. Rock youngster Rob Hellyer came up huge in the handicapped effort scoring a career-high dozen points (3+9) on the night, a positive sign moving forward for the Rock's now depleted offensive unit.

“[Hellyer's] been good for us all year and the other night was more of a breakout game for him,” said Sanderson. “Obviously he had a lot more touches and playing in different situations with [Billings] going down.”

Now, the Rock will host the Philadelphia Wings for the second time this season and the game could be described as their biggest to date. A Toronto win would officially eliminate the Wings from playoff contention while also cementing the Rock's chances at making the playoffs for the fifth year in a row.

“Going against Philly we need everyone to step up and pick up their game a little bit and try to find a way to grab this one,” said Sanderson. “It's a playoff game and they're aware of that and we're aware of that.”

The two teams last met at the Wells Fargo Center on March 22, a night in which the Rock came just short of completing a comeback victory. After being down 11-8 at halftime, Toronto tightened the screws on defence and as result, only allowed three goals over second half. The commendable effort however, was not quite enough as Toronto eventually fell by a score of 14-13.

The Rock also come into this weekend with what seems to be a polished defensive unit. Over their last two games, Toronto has allowed just 19 goals against, their smallest number over a two-game stretch this season. The recently acquired Brandon Miller has also contributed to the cause looking sharp in goal over his last two starts. In a Rock uniform, Miller has allowed 10.46 goals per game while carrying a solid .792 save percentage.

“Our last two games have been our two best defensive games of the year. [The defence] starting to get a little more confident,” said Sanderson.

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