The Toronto Rock (13-4) will shoot for the top overall seed in the National Lacrosse League and first place in the East Division when they roll into Connecticut to take on the New England Black Wolves (4-12) at Mohegan Sun Arena on Friday at 7 p.m. ET. Watch the game on NLL LIVE in the U.S. and TSN GO in Canada.
It will take all 18 weeks of the NLL regular season to decide which team will be awarded the league’s top spot heading into the postseason. The reward is a free pass to the Division Finals series, and with home floor advantage to boot. While Toronto has held first place overall for nearly the entire season, it will take one last victory against New England (or a Rochester loss) in the final weekend to solidly their position.
“It’s the whole reason why you play in the regular season,” said Rock transition player Jesse Gamble. “It’s all comes down to this game. It’s extremely important we win this and clinch first place.”
The Rock are coming off of a much needed bye week, which gave recovering players Rob Hellyer (upper body) and Colin Doyle (rotator cuff) one final week to ready themselves for a return to the lineup. Between the two, 23 total man weeks were spent on the injury reserve.
“I think it was a good time for us to have a break, we’ve had some guys banged up, said Rock head coach John Lovell. “The week off gave Rob Hellyer and Colin Doyle another couple weeks to get ready here.”
Hellyer, before falling to injury in Week 12 against the Edmonton Rush, held the league’s highest point total with 86 points (31+55) and looked poised to earn his first career 100 point season. The sudden loss of Hellyer led to the eventual acquisition of league all star Kevin Crowley from New England via trade. As result, Hellyer, with Doyle, will be inserted into a crowded seven-man offensive lineup on Friday night.
“In a perfect world, our team has played very well in a six and ten scenario, but because of the injuries and because we have Rob [Hellyer] playing for the first time in six weeks and Colin [Doyle] for the first time in a year, we thought it would be wise to have the extra offensive guy going this weekend,” said Lovell of the unconventional lineup scenario.”
Count ’em, the Rock now have eight surefooted forwards on the active roster (Doyle, Hellyer, Crowley, Josh Sanderson, Stephan Leblanc, Brett Hickey, Kevin Ross, Kasey Beirnes), which means Lovell is forced to bite his lip and make a decision on who to sit out, a judgment the second-year coach is not excited to make.
“Whenever you got to tell a guy he’s not in the lineup, I don’t think any coach wants to do that,” said Lovell. “These guys are good people as well as good players and they all want to compete.”
With Sanderson, Hickey and Leblanc each having banner years, the decision really boils down to Kevin Ross (21+34) and Kasey Beirnes (34+23), two players with just a couple points separating each other. Lovell gave no indication to who he’s leaning toward.
“I think about it a lot, we think about it all the time,” said Lovell.
The Black Wolves have come very close to beating the Rock in their previous meetings, losing by only four goals between two games. While the pack is officially out of playoff contention and looks to finish on a high note, the Rock can take the East Division title with a win.
“Every game in this league is tough…no easy games,” said Rock head coach John Lovell. “I don’t know whether it makes any difference if you beat a team by 10 or if you beat them by two. They are difficult games, whenever we play them in the season, on the schedule, there’s always a lot at stake.”
“We want to finish up strong this year,” said Black Wolves assistant general manager Rich Lisk. “We started off really strong, and we got hit with the injury bug pretty early with Quinn Powless going down. And these last few weeks with Andrew Suitor and Brian Megill; Mike Manley was out last weekend and Sheldon Burns was out last weekend. It’s been a different year, I’ll say that, but it’s a process too and we understood that.”
During their first matchup of the season, the Black Wolves controlled the pace most of the way. However, the Rock scored five goals in the fourth quarter to tie it at 12, and eventually won with an early goal in overtime. In their Week 16 rematch, the game was a battle of timely goals and quick answers. Toronto gained momentum late in the second half and ended up beating the Black Wolves, 15-12. Though the Rock and the pack are on opposite ends of the standings, the respect between the two clubs is clear.
“There are no bad teams in this league,” noted Lovell. “Sometimes teams don’t have as good a record as other teams; that doesn’t mean they’re a bad team. That’s just the way things fall sometimes.”
Though their season is over, the Black Wolves will focus on making the most of their final weekend and proving themselves to their fans. Even when the Wolves were suffering from a five-game skid, the Mohegan Sun Arena filled with cheers and howls for the pack. With the support from a passionate New England fan base, the Black Wolves can look back at their debut season with a little bit of pride.
“This first year has been good at Mohegan Sun and we owe nothing but our best to the ownership and the fans who’ve been supporting us all season long,” stated Black Wolves forward Kyle Buchanan. “We’ve got a couple of games to go here. The season didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but we’ve got to be professionals and we want to end on a high note.”
By Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) and Alyssa McLaughlin (@BlackWolvesBeat) for NLL.com. Photo by Graig Abel.