The Toronto Rock (6-1), standing tall atop the East Division standings, will be faced with their third divisional game in a row as the team hosts the New England Black Wolves (2-3) at Air Canada Centre on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET. Watch on NLL LIVE in the U.S. and TSN GO in Canada.
The game comes less than a week after the Rock completed a weekend home-and-home sweep over the Minnesota Swarm in which they outscored them 30-13. The effort also catapulted Toronto ahead of a jammed packed East Division group. While the Rock rest at a 6-1 record, the remaining four teams tread with just a game separating second to last place.
“Yes, it was a great weekend for us. It had some important implications for us in the standings. Minnesota is a tough team, it was great to get both,” said Rock head coach John Lovell.
Toronto will get their first regular season taste of the Black Wolves since the relocation from Philadelphia in the offseason. While the team does reside in a different city, much of the roster has remained the same. Perhaps the biggest roster absence, in fact, now sits in the steady hands of the Rock. Brodie Merrill, former captain of the Philadelphia franchise, now calls Toronto his home and has fit in nicely, leading his new club in loose balls (60).
“There’s always uncertainty, but I wouldn’t say we’re unfamiliar with them.,” said Lovell of playing a new franchise. “A lot of those guys did play on the Philadelphia team last year, we did play then in the preseason.”
“I have a lot of respect for their offense…they have a lot of fire power there,” Lovell said. “They’ve got a lot of guys with decent size and guys that are highly skilled.”
The Rock are off to their hottest start since the 2010 season, a year in which the club started 7-1 and eventually went on to the Champion’s Cup Finals where they fell to the Stealth. Much of this year’s success has to be attributed to Toronto well-balanced approach. The Rock have flourished on both ends of the floor, leading the league in both goals for (94) and fewest goals allowed (66).
“It’s been a great so far. I think we have a pretty deep offense, we got six guys that can pitch in from anywhere,” said Kevin Ross, who has chimed in with 23 points (8+15) thus far.
Ross has settled into what’s surprisingly proved to be the league’s most potent offense, providing more than adequate secondary scoring along side youngster Brett Hickey (18+8). While it’s easy to point to Josh Sanderson, Stephan Leblanc and Rob Hellyer for the high offensive numbers, Ross and Hickey have been large contributors to the Rock’s early success.
Ahead of the 2015 season, much was in question amid the news that Colin Doyle and Garret Billings would be absent long-term, but Ross and Hickey proved early on that a veteran journeyman and a young unknown could fill that void. The two have combined for 49 points though seven games played, and Hickey, by much surprise, leads all Toronto shooters in goal scoring.
“We got a pretty good thing here and we’re looking forward to keeping it rolling,” said Ross.
With key injuries plaguing their offense, the Black Wolves are definitely facing an uphill battle this week.
“We’ve come into a pretty interesting stretch: three games in eight days,” said Black Wolves head coach Blane Harrison. “The first game didn’t go as planned, but we always look forward to playing the Toronto Rock. They are the best team in the league right now. With the way we’ve been playing, it’s going to be a real challenge for us.”
The Black Wolves have been outscored by their opponents in every game since their 2-0 start ended in Week 4. The pack’s struggles offensively started when rookie forward Quinn Powless was placed on the injured reserve list. Powless collected a few assists in the early games, but it was his size that made all the difference for the Black Wolves. With one big body out, the pack is in desperate need of some help from veteran Kevin Crowley.
“Offense is kind of a funny thing, it can be a fragile thing as well,” noted Harrison. “I don’t want to put it all on Quinn, but Quinn was a big part of our offense. He was a big body and he was very unselfish. He was able to create a lot of space for both Kevin and Kyle Buchanan. As a result, I think that led to some early success. Quinn not being able to go the last couple of games has put us on our heels a little bit. Do we need Kevin (Crowley) to be our number one player in the offense? Absolutely, but I don’t want to have to put so much pressure on him that he feels he has to carry the load by himself when there are five or six other guys that now need to pitch in.”
Crowley leads the team in points and assists, and his lack of scoring has come into question a lot during the Black Wolves’ losing streak. Though the debuts of Brett Bucktooth and Mark Cockerton have breathed a bit of life into the team, there are still a lot of things the Black Wolves need to fix before Friday’s game. The offense has struggled to capitalize on key mistakes, and the team has not been able to finish their comeback attempts.
“After the last three games, there are a lot of adjustments that have to go on,” stated Harrison. “Getting down early in those games didn’t help, it’s just a longer road to climb. Against Rochester, there was a goal that was called back in the last 10 minutes of that game that would have made it 11-11. Even with the goal not counting, it’s still a one-goal game with ten minutes to go and we let it slip away. We have to learn to start out a little bit stronger than we did the first two games, and then have the will to finish. We have to compete until the final whistle.”
With the battle for the East Division heating up fast and a chance to get back to basics, the Black Wolves have a number of things to focus on as they practice for Friday’s matchup against Toronto. While the odds may not be in their favor based on the past few weeks, the New England Black Wolves maintain their strength as a unit and hope for the best.
“We’ve kind of swung the pendulum both ways a little bit,” said Harrison. “We’re on the wrong side of that right now. Hopefully we can turn it around this week.”
By Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) & Alyssa McLaughlin (@BlackWolvesBeat) for NLL.com. Photo by Martin Deland.