After seeing themselves at their worst, the Toronto Rock knew they needed to change.
In the hours and days following the Rock’s 12-6 road loss to the Buffalo Bandits back on January 8th, there was a powerful sense of disappointment and dejection within all areas of the organization.
Rock Head Coach Matt Sawyer noted that watching the game film back showed the players how they had woefully underperformed against one of their fiercest East Conference rivals. When the game is on film, there’s no place to hide from your mistakes.
“We said to the guys [in the video session], ‘you can’t argue that what we’ve shown you up to this point of the season is good enough,’” Sawyer said. “It was a challenge from us coaches to our players. None of us had been good enough, even ourselves as coaches.”
Not only had the Rock dropped to 2-2 for the year – the 6-goal loss was the largest since the 2019 season – their six goals scored was also the fewest since March 2019. The team had a chance to redeem themselves against the Halifax Thunderbirds the next week but were ultimately unsuccessful. Despite a much more admirable effort, the Rock fell 14-13 in overtime.
The team had now fallen to 2-3 in their first five games – it was their worst five-game start to an NLL season since 2016 – and were on pace to finish the year with a record of 7-11. Had the Rock finished this year with that record, it would have only been the 5th time in their storied 23-year history where they had seven or fewer wins (not including the 2020 shortened season).
Sawyer knew his guys were finally trending in the right direction – he considered that January loss to Halifax the team’s best performance of the season up to that point – and with a week off, there was a hope that the team would be ready to perform at their best after the bye week.
“After that loss, we had a bye week, and we were able to reset and refocus,” Sawyer said. “We realized that we were a good team, we felt like we were a team that would get to do something special this year, and it was time to get to work.”
With the impacts of COVID-19 and injuries having affected this team throughout the first couple of months of the season, the Rock searched far and wide for players to step up and fill the shoes of the men they were missing; this team used every man at their disposal.
Jordan McKenna was able to play a few games while his hockey season was on hold due to COVID, 22-year-old 3rd-string goaltender Troy Holowchuk grabbed some big minutes early in the year, and forward Mark Cockerton was able to suit up for the team on a Friday despite getting the call to join the Rock 24 hours before game time. These were just a few examples of how the Rock were able to dig deep in their attempts to win games.
Following that Thunderbirds loss, the Rock have looked like the team they knew they could be. They have now won 10 of their last 12 games heading into this final week of the NLL’s regular season – that’s more wins than 12 different Rock past seasons. . If they were to win against the Bandits in Week 22, the Rock would finish this year with a 13-5 record, which would be the team’s 2nd-most regular season wins in the team’s history.
Regardless of the roadblocks this team had to face and the unfortunate results that piled up in the first handful of weeks, forward Dan Craig echoed a message of belief that he and his teammates would soon turn things around.
“It has always been in us that want and need to win, we were just not performing to the level that we wanted at the early stages of the years, and we recognized that,” Craig said. “Sometimes it takes hearing that from your coaches and other outside sources to really kick things into gear.”
Outside of the Bandits, the Rock have arguably done more than any other team in the NLL this season to prove that they deserve to be in the postseason and be in the conversation as genuine title contenders. And although their upcoming game against the Bandits is relatively meaningless (in terms of playoff positioning), Craig and the Rock are approaching this final game just as they’ve approached many of their other matches during this second half of the season: a must win.
“Playing Buffalo heading into the playoffs is super important because we get to play one of the best teams in the league and make sure that we’re sharp,” Craig said. “We want to prove a point to ourselves and the rest of the league that we’re a very serious contender. I’m sure we will have to play Buffalo at some point in the playoffs if we want to advance, so we want to set a precedent now.”
It might be hard to imagine, but Sawyer and the Rock staff still believe that this team can reach an even more unstoppable level of play. This Bandits game this weekend will be a defining fight for NLL superiority heading into this postseason and could set the tone for this rivalry for seasons to come.
Had this Rock team not endured that painful loss against the Bandits four months ago, who knows what we would’ve seen from this team in 2022. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, that loss has been a motivating factor for this Rock team’s success ever since. Now every team is in the way of this East Conference wrecking ball with unstoppable momentum.