By Ray Lilley | NLL.com Correspondent
Photo Kohi Ton
In an already difficult season for New England, the month of April is looking to be the toughest. With their backs against the wall while battling for a playoff spot, the Black Wolves will start the final month of the season with games against the top three teams in the National Lacrosse League, beginning with the team they are chasing on Sunday afternoon.
The New England Black Wolves (6-7) will start this difficult stretch of games at home against the second place, Toronto Rock (8-6) this week followed by matchups the next two weeks with first place teams, Georgia at home and then making the long trip to Saskatchewan.
The task for New England is to not only jump over this week’s opponent, Toronto, but also to hold off the Buffalo Bandits who are only a half game behind them in the standings with a game in hand. New England also has a game in hand on Toronto which makes Sunday’s game that much more important. With a game in hand, that means New England can pick up the game and a half difference by beating Toronto head-to-head this week, winning that extra game and keeping pace with what the Rock does the rest of the way. It sounds so simple but it really all depends on whether or not the Black Wolves can sweep the season series with the Rock on Sunday.
A victory against the Rock will give the Black Wolves the tie breaker against both, Toronto and Buffalo, essentially putting them in the driver’s seat throughout the season’s final stretch. Toronto will play Buffalo in two of their remaining three games so a split between those two could open the door for New England to walk right into the playoffs.
Sunday’s game will see a rested up New England team welcoming Toronto, who just played Friday night in Vancouver. The Rock dropped the contest after being outscored 11-5 in the second half. Vancouver scored seven of the game’s last eight goals to split the home-and-home after Toronto won last weekend at the Air Canada Centre. With some fireworks at the final buzzer in Vancouver, the Black Wolves can expect a feisty Rock team to come out looking to make up for their sluggish second half.
New England, themselves, are coming off a tough second half last weekend in Calgary when they, too, gave up 11 goals in an 18-13 road loss. Unlike Toronto, New England scored four of the last five goals of the game and hope to keep their high powered offense rolling Sunday afternoon against the league’s top statistical goaltender, Nick Rose.
Rose leads the NLL with a 9.93 goals against average and is second with a .790 save percentage. The Rock netminder also leads the NLL in minutes played by 113 minutes over Black Wolves’ backstop, Evan Kirk. Even with an offense that has been strong and steady following their 0-3 start, Head Coach Glenn Clark knows solving Nick Rose will be a tremendous task for his Black Wolves.
“I think one (concern) is that Nick Rose is having an outstanding year. He’s been really strong in net and their defense is playing well around him. They play with speed, they push the pace all over the floor, and they try to burn you in transition. They have some quickness offensively and then try to get you on your heels a little bit with their speed upfront. I would say the pace of play, the speed they play at, as well as Nick Rose, are probably the biggest challenges that they present.”
After a 10-9 overtime win in their first meeting with Toronto, Clark’s group knows they will need to make the most of their chances on Rose while also tightening up on defense in front of Kirk. A key to that will be getting Bill O’Brien back in the lineup after his second suspension of the season. O’Brien’s tough, physical style should help to frustrate and get Toronto’s top players, Brett Hickey (33 goals, 24 assists) and Tom Schreiber (24 goals, 49 assists), off their game. O’Brien is also someone that New England can look to for a needed spark or boost throughout the game, something that was missing in their performance in Calgary last week.
“I thought it was a pretty flat performance across the board,” Clark said of his team. “I don’t think we were very sharp. A lot of dropped balls offensively, and defensively we had too many missed assignments.”
With only five games remaining, the Black Wolves know they cannot let any more games slip away if they want to play in the playoffs and they need to put in their best performance every time they hit the floor from here on out.
“We get a chance to bounce back with a big divisional game against a team that we are chasing,” Clark said. “Everybody is in the right frame of mind. We sort of recalibrated ourselves and everybody is ready to go after it on Sunday.”