Minnesota Swarm (4-13) host the Toronto Rock (8-9) for finale at Xcel Energy Center on Saturday at 8pm ET. (Photo: Scott Pierson)
Heading into the final week of the regular season, the Toronto Rock (8-9) are armed with a chance to clinch a home playoff game against the Buffalo Bandits in round one of the NLL playoffs. The Rock can earn the playoff game on home floor with a win on the road against the Minnesota Swarm (4-13) on Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET along with a Buffalo loss to the Rochester Knighthawks on the same night. Watch both games live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.
“We've had big games for a number of weeks now, so it's no different,” said Toronto Rock head coach John Lovell.
While their playoff outcome isn't completely in their hands, Toronto has done everything possible down the stretch to position themselves in the fortuitous spot. On March 30, the once floundering Rock were 5-9 and looked to be en route to an early finish to the 2014 season.
Since however, the Rock have won three-straight games, two of which against teams jostling for playoff positioning in the East Division (Philadelphia Wings, Buffalo Bandits).
“It seem like we are kind of finding our groove right now and it's a good time to come together,” said Rock veteran defender Cam Woods.
The Rock are fresh off a handicapped 13-9 victory over the Buffalo Bandits last weekend – their first win against the Bandits in three tries.
With Garrett Billings already ruled out well before the game's start, it was announced just minutes before the opening whistle that Toronto would also be short Josh Sanderson due to an illness. Furthermore, the Rock opted to start struggling goalie Nick Rose for the first time since March 22.
Despite all this, Toronto stood tall defensively only allowing four goals in the second half en route to the four-goal victory.
“It helps with confidence for sure,” said Woods. “Every time we play Buffalo, they're usually tight games. We've played them enough that both teams are fairly familiar with each other, but having dropped the first two games, [the win] definitely helps with confidence.”
Rose was named third star for his 48 save effort keeping him in the mix for the number one spot in goal heading into the playoffs.
“We're very fortunate to have those two guys [Rose and Miller] back there,” said Woods. “Regardless of who the coach decides to put back there, we're confident in both guys. We're just going to try to continue to play tough defence in front of whoever is back there."
Over the last four games, Miller and Rose have combined for a .813 save percentage on 215 shots against.
The Rock's rise and the Bandits' fall (a seven game losing streak) tie the two teams in the standings at an 8-9 record making Saturday night's game against Swarm yet another game with playoff implications for Toronto.
“We know we're playing a dangerous team this weekend, but we'd like to keep the momentum and keep building moving forward,” said Woods.
The Rock will meet the Swarm for the third time this season and while Toronto has claimed victory in the first two games, danger lingers in a late collapse in the teams' last meeting on March 16.
After jumping out to a 5-0 first quarter lead, the Rock were outscored 8-3 over the next three frames forcing Toronto's only overtime appearance this season. Just 1:34 into the extra stanza, Colin Doyle broke a 26:21 goaless draught for the Rock scoring the game winning goal on the doorstep.
As the Swarm round out their season with a visit from the Rock, they're focused on providing an invigorating atmosphere for their fans while proving the force of their young team for the future.
“We’re going to play for pride and keep working towards next year and hopefully we can come out on top and get the win for our fans,” said Swarm captain Andrew Suitor.
Despite a season that has generated a perplexing amount of losses, the Swarm are no less determined to end their season right. In fact, they are approaching this game with the fervor of a team looking to validate their competitive nature and athletic ability.
“This year has been beyond disappointment,” said Suitor. “Toronto’s heading to the playoffs and they have an opportunity to have a home playoff game so we’re going to come in wanting to work.”
For Minnesota, a win won’t amount to making the playoffs or be about receiving any accolades, it will be for the fans who have continued to show up and support the Swarm through the end of each game and ultimately, through the end of the season.
“It’s a big game for us - the fans get to come over after the game and get autographs,” said Swarm assistant coach Aime Caines. “So we really want to put a show on and entertain them.”
The best way for the Swarm to put on a show for the fans is to give them a preview of the season to come. Although the young team wasn’t able to mesh soon enough this year, the amount of young talent combined with a base of veterans presents the fans and the organization with something to look forward to for next year.
“A few years ago we had the youngest team in the NLL and this year we broke it by having an even younger team,” said Caines. “Having a guy like Logan Schuss with a year under his belt is going to be huge for the organization. We’ve got a lot of young talented guys like Flint and Jones who are going to have a year under their belt plus the new guys coming in - it’s really exciting.”
The anticipation of a bright future has developed a Minnesota team that will not be defined by their record this season. Instead, they will take on Toronto with the ardor of a team that wants to prove their capability and deliver a precursor for next season.
“We want the win - we’re going to come prepared and we’re going to play,” said Caines. “We have a lot of competitors on our team so no one is going to be sailing through the game. We’re going to put our best foot forward.”