On the heels of a dramatic overtime home win over New England, the Toronto Rock (7-1) will start a three-game road trip, first against the West Division’s top team in the Edmonton Rush (4-2) on Friday at Rexall Place. Watch on NLL LIVE in the U.S. and TSN GO in Canada starting at 9:30 p.m. ET as both division leaders put four-game winning streaks on the line.
It took 60 minutes and then some for the Rock to mount their seventh win of the season last week, and it was who else but Josh Sanderson scoring in overtime, capping an impressive come-from-behind victory.
“When we were down 10-5, it wasn’t looking very good,” said Sanderson, the league’s top point getter with 52 points (8+44) on the year. “I just shot around the screen and thankfully it went in because it was a big win, especially since our next three are on the road.”
Toronto will pack up for a three-game road trip stretching until March 14, a period of which that will include games against Edmonton, Colorado and Buffalo.
Not resting on the laurels of a league-best 7-1 record, the Rock will continue to hunker down on the little hiccups in its game.
“We’re off to a good start, but we know we have to play better this weekend,” said Rock head coach John Lovell.
The Rock fell handicap to a New England 7-1 run, the biggest of any this season. While the defense, Lovell said, wasn’t on par, Toronto’s offense also struggled at times last week. The Rock’s five goals over two and a half quarters is the second fewest over that long a stretch this season.
Call it a battle of two first place teams. Toronto and Edmonton both sit atop their divisions with stark attributions to their early-season successes. The Rock roll in with the league’s top offense, carried by the amazing rise of Rob Hellyer and Brett Hickey. The two youngsters have posted a combined 80 points (40+40) thus far.
“Rob Hellyer started getting comfortable when Garrett Billings went down to injury, so not a big surprise there,” said Sanderson. “He’s a good, smart player with good feet. We expect a lot out of him and he delivers every game.”
“We knew Hickey was good, but not this good. He’s strong, he’s a tough check. He’s got a great finish around the net,” Sanderson added.
Edmonton meanwhile, is regarded as the league’s top defense. The Rush have allowed just 54 goals this season, the fewest of any NLL team.
“I think we matchup pretty well against Edmonton, we have similar types of offenses in terms of our styles,” said Lovell. “Edmonton is that top defensive team in the league and we’re trying to get to that point.”
Toronto, not far behind the Rush, have allowed just 78 goals this season with two more games played. A large thanks has to go to the additions of Brodie Merrill, Brock Sorensen and Jeff Gilbert on the back end. The three big men – each 6’4” or taller – have stood strong, posting a combined 131 loose balls thus far.
“I think it’s been a very important, not only the size, but they are good defenders,” said Lovell.
“We have some left shots, we didn’t have a lot of left shots on our backend. It’s improved us in a lot of areas in terms of killing penalties and having a bigger presence on the floor,” Lovell added.
Toronto will be the biggest test for the Rush, who after a slow start, have won its last four, and now sit atop the West Division. Rush general manager and head coach Derek Keenan is looking forward to the challenge.
“This is a big test for us this weekend,” Keenan said. “Toronto is a much-improved team, especially on the back end. They can still score as well as they always have. It’s going to be a great lacrosse game. I think we are both, right now, very good teams and we look to get better and improve on where we are so far. We had a little bit of a slow start but we’re going well of late and look forward to getting back to regular routine and playing every week as well.”
Edmonton’s success can be attributed to any aspect of its game. The first two games of the winning streak saw them explode for 16 and 18 goals respectively. In all four games, they held opponents to under 10 goals, with great play from the defense to limit shots, and by goaltender Aaron Bold who has stopped 80% of the shots he has faced this season.
Edmonton’s turnaround was no accident and according to Rush assistant captain Jarrett Davis, they’re headed in the right direction with no intention of slowing down. After a bye week, the team focused on healing up injuries, using the large amounts of time off they have been given to their advantage.
“I think this week was just focusing on resting and making sure we stayed fit for the game, and moving forward in conditioning, you want to make sure you’re peaking at the right time,” Davis said. “That was an issue for us, I think, at the beginning of the season. We just came into camp a little bit lackadaisical, maybe we thought that we were better than we were or we deserved to take a big break. I think that issue has been addressed so far and the guys are responding great to it. And now we just have to make sure we take each game at a time.”
Davis has been an unsung hero for the Rush this season, playing out of both gates due to injuries. Davis has made himself comfortable on the leagues best defense, and has chipped in with 13 points (6+7) playing offense and moving the ball in transition.
“It’s something that you have to prepare for, you know, be ready for anything,” Davis said. “I think my role has changed more offensively at this point but it seems like every game we’ve been losing a guy to injury and I end up going out the back gate. It’s whatever the coach has me ready to do, I have to make sure I’m prepared and available to help out the team.”
Davis filled in for Chris Corbeil after he went down with a foot injury in Edmonton’s last game against the Colorado Mammoth. Test results for the injury came back negative, but the team is not yet sure if he will play on Friday, with the decision coming on game day.
By Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) & Mike Wilson (@RushBeat) for NLL.com. Photo by Dale MacMillan.