The Toronto Rock (14-4) secured the top overall NLL seed and first place in the East Division to earn a first-round playoff bye with a 10-7 road win over the New England Black Wolves (4-13) on Friday night at Mohegan Sun Arena.
The Rock controlled the pace for most of the game, though the pack took a few bites of its own. Toronto now waits to see who they face in the second round of the playoffs, while the Black Wolves hit the road for their season finale against the Buffalo Bandits.
“Considering how we started the season, with two key guys out of our lineup, we’re pretty happy with how this thing has finished off,” said Rock head coach John Lovell. “That gives us a first-round bye and supposedly a playoff advantage, if there is such a thing in this league.”
“It’s just such a huge win, we put a lot of stock into this game,” added Rock forward Josh Sanderson.
“I honestly thought that the difference in the game tonight was the referees,” said Black Wolves head coach Blane Harrison. “I think they took it away from our guys. If they let the guys play, it was a pretty exciting game. It was up and down, nice lacrosse on both sides. They took that away from, I think, the fans. It was a great opportunity for it to be showcased in the last home game of the year. It’s unfortunate that it has to go that way.”
For the Rock, Brett Hickey had a game-leading four goals, including his 50th of the year which set a new Rock single-season record, while Jesse Gamble added one of his own. Kasey Biernes had one goal and one assist.
NLL legend Colin Doyle, who returned for the team’s finale after missing all year with a shoulder injury, collected two goals and three assists in his ’15 debut. The other big story of the game was Rock forward Josh Sanderson, who broke the NLL single-season record with his 83rd assist of the season and finished with five points (1+4). Also, goaltender Brandon Miller had a great outing with 40 saves on 49 shots on goal.
“The win was so huge, I’m not even thinking about it to be honest with you,” Sanderson said. “I play with a lot of good goal scorers and I guess that’s why I got it, I know it is. The bye helped me personally, I felt fresh out there. It’s just good to help contribute to the win. It’s massive for our franchise.”
“He’s had an absolutely fantastic season, that’s all I can say,” Lovell said. “It’s been inspiring to everybody on this team and to me as a coach. I consider myself pretty fortunate to be around it and to see it and to be involved with him and his dad. It was a pretty special night.”
On the other side of the turf, the Black Wolves spread the scoring love among all of its forwards. Kevin Buchanan led with two goals, and Garret Billings, Mark Cockerton, Pat Saunders, Kyle Buchanan, and Brett Bucktooth all collected a goal apiece. Billings collected three assists on the night, while Saunders and Ryan Hotaling each added two assists. Bucktooth and Mike Manley added an assist as well. Though the Black Wolves were outshot and outscored, veteran goaltender Evan Kirk had a great game in the net. Kirk had 52 saves on the night, after facing 62 shots on goal.
“It would’ve been better to get a win, to be quite honest,” Kirk admitted. “From day to day, I don’t look at my stats, it’s just wins or losses in our column. That’s another loss to a team that we’ve got a lot of competition against. It’s tough losing.”
The pack started off hot with Kevin Buchanan scoring the first goal just 12 seconds into the game off of the faceoff. The game was a back-and-forth battle of whose defense was going to hold out longest, and the Rock won the war in the fourth quarter. Both teams were physical throughout the game, with scuffles coming at every turn.
The Black Wolves finish off the 2015 season with a road game against the Buffalo Bandits on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Rock are done for the regular season as they now await the winner of the Buffalo vs. Rochester East Division Semifinal series. Toronto will host Game 2 of the East Division Finals on Saturday, May 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET.
“I definitely wanted to end on a good note, that’s for sure,” Kirk said. “Banditland is an easy place to get up for. It’s going to be tough traveling tonight, lack of sleep, but there’s lots of people to get you excited for the game. We definitely want to give them a loss going into the playoffs.”
“We know we’ve got Buffalo or Rochester and they’re both good teams,” said Sanderson about the playoffs. “Buffalo is probably playing as good as they have all year and they’re a real good ball club. Then Rochester is three-time defending champs; until someone knocks them off, they’re the best team.”
“We know we’ve got to work hard at our practices, and whoever we play, we’re going to play. We’ve just got to have the same intensity we had tonight,” he added.
Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:
1) Brett Hickey
2) Evan Kirk
3) Brandon Miller
Story by Alyssa McLaughlin (@BlackWolvesBeat) for NLL.com. Photo by Khoi Ton.