The Toronto Rock (12-4) inched closer to clinching the top overall playoff seed in the National Lacrosse League by doubling up the Vancouver Stealth (4-10) by a score of 14-7 before a crowd of 9,317 at Lacrosse Night in Canada at Air Canada Centre on Friday.
A big seven-goal and 11-point game from second-year surprise Brett Hickey put a halt to a home floor mini-slump as the Rock trek ever closer to a first-place regular season finish.
“I was just taking the shots I usually take,” said Hickey, who put up seven of his 11 points by halftime. “Sometimes they go in and other times they don’t.”
Hickey’s words showed a sense of modesty, but Friday night’s effort was far from. His seven-goal total is the highest ever for a Toronto Rock player in a single game. With the likes of league legends Garrett Billings, Colin Doyle, Jim Veltman, Blaine Manning and many others once wearing a Rock uniform, Hickey’s accomplishment is all that more astonishing. Just a year removed from being a casual part-time player with the Vancouver Stealth, the league’s top goal scorer said he has found his groove in Toronto.
“Scores and records aside, this is the best team I’ve ever been a part of,” said Hickey.
Vancouver’s Tyler Digby opened the game’s scoring 5:16 after first whistle, but Toronto newcomer Kevin Crowley quickly answered with his second tally in a Rock uniform. Just over a minute later, forwards Cliff Smith and Cory Small completed a 2-0 mini-run to give the Stealth a 3-1 lead with 4:24 left in the first frame.
Hickey, with just seconds left in the quarter, scored on transition and started what eventually became a 7-1 Rock run. The latter six Rock goals, all coming in the second frame, came from the sticks of Kevin Ross (2), Hickey (3) and Stephan Leblanc. Only Justin Salt scored for the Stealth, his goal as result of a Toronto breakdown. The run registers as the clear difference in the game as Vancouver scored just three goals the rest of the way.
“A big thing is accountability,” said the Stealth’s leading scorer Duch. “There aren’t a lot of people doing their jobs right now. To win in this league everyone has to be going 100 percent all the time. Personally, I didn’t even show up tonight and you feel like you let the boys down.”
Digby opened all second half scoring just seconds into the third frame. Crowley, nearly three minutes later, answered with his second goal of the night, stretching the Rock’s advantage to 9-5. On the heels of a five-minute silence, Hickey potted a pair to complete his first career sock-trick. Vancouver’s Ilija Gajic capped off the 11-6 third quarter score with his ninth goal of the year.
A 3-1 Rock run in the fourth frame solidified the 14-7 final. Toronto’s 14 goals is their highest total on home floor since February 14, a date in which the Rock defeated the Swarm 14-9.
“I thought we played better tonight, I thought our offense gelled a little bit better,” said Rock owner and general manager Jamie Dawick.
While the Rock put questions about a floundering offence to rest on Friday night (their previous five games averaged just 10.2 Rock goals per game), Dawick revealed the team’s most efficient scorer Rob Hellyer could be set to return before the end of the regular season. Before falling to injury a month ago, Hellyer put up a then league-leading 86 points (31+55).
“We’re missing Robbie [Hellyer] a little bit,” said Dawick. “He’s been the quarterback of our team. But he’ll be back soon, we’re just being cautious with him.”
The imminent addition of Hellyer will give Toronto seven guys on offense, which only leaves nine spots left on the back end. Although unconventional, Dawick confirms his faith in the strategy.
“If that’s what we end up doing, we can do it,” said Dawick. “We’re typically a six [forwards] and 10 [defenders] team, so I imagine we’ll go seven and nine for a least a game.”
While Toronto can rest relatively easy and dream up potential lineup scenarios, the Stealth now find themselves tied for the final playoff spot in the West Division with the also 4-10 Calgary Roughnecks. With four games remaining – their last against Calgary – Vancouver still controls their own destiny. A win in each of those games guarantees playoff spot.
“It’s honestly lucky that our destiny is still in our own hands,” Duch said. “If we win, we’re in, that’s got to be our main focus right now and not hoping a praying for something to happen outside our room.”
Vancouver will get a chance to quickly forget about Friday night’s loss and shift focus to their game this Sunday night in Connecticut against the New England Black Wolves. The two teams, each carrying four wins thus far, have yet to meet this season.
“We got another game moving forward on Sunday, we don’t have to let [Friday night’s] game linger in our head,” Duch said. “The word in the room is to understand what we did wrong and make sure we respond on Sunday.”
Toronto goalie Nick Rose got the nod in goal and stopped 42 of 49 Stealth shots for a .857 save percentage. The effort gives him a league-second-best .803 save percentage overall on the year. Rochester goalie Matt Vinc (.806) holds the number one spot
Vancouver’s goaltending situation can be described as tenuous at best. With veteran Tyler Richards carrying a league-worst 14.59 goal against average, the Stealth’s last line of defence is now bestowed on youngster Eric Penny. Penny played his first two full career NLL games last weekend, both of which against the Edmonton Rush. The 21-year-old allowed 32 goals all together and amounted only a .735 save percentage. Penny got a shot for redemption on Friday night and came up short as 12 goals slipped by on just 43 shots. Stealth backup Cody Hagedorn played 13:58 in parts of the second and third frames and allowed a pair of goals on 11 shots.
Hickey (7+4) led all shooters with 11 points on the night while Josh Sanderson (0+6), Crowley (3+3) and Ross (2+4) each followed up with six points of their own.
Rhys Duch (0+3) and Small (1+2) lead all Stealth shooters with three points in the loss.
Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:
1) Brett Hickey
2) Kevin Crowley
3) Nick Rose
By Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) for NLL.com. Photo by Graig Abel.