The Toronto Rock (3-0) stayed unbeaten by defeating the Buffalo Bandits (2-2) with a 13-11 home opener victory on “Guaranteed Win Night” before a spirited crowd of 11,413 at Air Canada Centre on Friday night.
Stephan Leblanc and Josh Sanderson combined for 15 points to give Toronto their third win of the season in what proved to be an emotional night for the NLL community.
Ahead of the opening faceoff, the Rock held a heartfelt tribute for the late Terry “T” Sanderson. The Rock players, forming a “T” at midfield, stood underneath a video tribute highlighting some of Sanderson’s finest moments in the league. As the testimonial closed, Bandits players offered their condolences by way of earnest handshakes with Rock players.
“The emotion is not going to leave us,” said Rock head coach John Lovell following the game. “Terry’s a very big part of this organization, I miss him a lot. The emotion is going to be part of who we are the entire year.”
Sanderson served two stints with the Rock organization, the latest of which starting in 2010. Over his eight total years with Toronto spanning from 2006 to present, Sanderson played large roll in the teams’ 2005 (general manager, head coach) and 2011 (general manager, assistant coach) Champion’s Cup victories. The 15-year league legend passed away in late November of last year due to heart complications.
“It’s not easy,” said Rock forward Sanderson, who on Friday played his first lacrosse home game following his father’s passing. “I just got to battle through it. It’s tough to get your mind swung back around, more so than any other game.”
Transition player Brodie Merrill, playing his first game at the ACC as a member of the Rock, opened all scoring just under four minutes after the first whistle. Just shy of four minutes later, forwards Leblanc and Mark Steenhuis traded goals 31 seconds apart with the Rock holding an early 2-1 lead. The two teams traded chances before the red-hot Rob Hellyer scored his 10th goal of the year with 2:48 left in the first frame. With time winding down, Steenhuis and Ryan Benesch each found the back of the net, tying the game 3-3 heading into the second quarter.
Just six seconds after faceoff, Jay Thorimbert completed a 3-0 Buffalo scoring run giving the Bandits their first lead of the game. Toronto quickly regained a 5-4 advantage after forwards Kasey Beirnes and Brett Hickey scored 18 seconds apart. The Bandits tightened the screws on defence and earned a 3-0 run to close the first half up 7-5.
“We couldn’t continue to play at that pace, said Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley of his team eventually surrendering a halftime lead. “I thought we were real tired in the second half and that’s from Toronto playing physical.”
Hickey, just moments into the second half, scored on the doorstep to pull the Rock within 7-6. On the goal, Josh Sanderson recorded his first of six points on the night. Hellyer and Beirnes followed up, each scoring their second goals of the game. The 3-0 run earned Toronto an 8-7 lead with 4:03 left in the third quarter. Buffalo’s Dhane Smith and Chad Culp sandwiched tallies between a Kevin Ross Toronto goal to tie the game at 9-9 heading into the final 15 minutes.
Hickey broke the tie early in the fourth frame by scoring on a trickler ahead of the slot. Leblanc, just over three minutes later, scored a man-down goal to pull the Rock ahead 11-9 with 9:48 left in the game. Buffalo pulled within two goals late with the goalie pulled but were unable to get any closer as Toronto got possession and called timeout with 40 seconds left before draining the clock en route to the win.
“I thought we started the game very well,” said Lovell. “But of the three games we played so far, I thought we made the most mistakes. We were fortunate to get some good goaltending and some goals at key times.”
The victory for Toronto earns them a 3-0 start to a season for the first time since 2011, a season in which they went on to win the Champion’s Cup. Despite only allowing four Buffalo goals in the second half, Lovell pointed to a couple defensive breakdowns, notably in the second quarter, that he would like to see cleaned up heading into Saturday night.
“There were three or four times where we didn’t look after the ball and it led to scramble play,” said Lovell. “We didn’t check the guys that we know can hurt us.”
Rock goalie Nick Rose, called upon for the first time this season ahead of Brandon Miller, answered the bell stopping 30 of Buffalo’s 41 shots for a .731 save percentage.
“I felt pretty confident going into the game,” said Rose, who saw his first action since April 18, 2014. “I’ve always felt confident against Buffalo whether it be in a winning or losing effort, I wasn’t worried tonight and I knew my teammates had my back.”
On the other end of the floor, Bandits goalie Anthony Cosmo allowed 13 goals for the second consecutive game. The 10-year league veteran stopped 41 of Toronto’s 54 shots for a .759 save percentage.
Special teams proved as a big factor in Friday night’s result as Buffalo allowed two short-handed goals while going 0-4 on the powerplay. Toronto, in their six powerplay attempts, scored twice bumping their powerplay percentage to a sparkling 58.82.
“That’s one of the best powerplay units in the league,” said Benesch who saw some time on the penalty kill unit. “If you’re taking penalties, they’re going to score some.”
Leblanc (2+7) led all shooters with nine points in the victory while Sanderson (0+6), the league’s leading scorer, followed up with six points of his own.
Steenhuis (3+4) lead all Bandits scorers with seven points in the loss. Benesch (5+1) followed close behind with six points of his own including a game-high five goals.
Friday night’s attendance was the largest for a Rock home game since April 7, 2013 when the Rock defeated Rochester 10-9 in front of 13,073 fans.
Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:
1) Josh Sanderson
2) Stephan Leblanc
3) Ryan Benesch
The Rock will get right back at it when the team travels to Rochester for a rematch with the Knighthawks on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET while Buffalo returns to Banditland in Week 5 to face the Minnesota Swarm at First Niagara Center.
Story by Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) for NLL.com. Photo by Graig Abel.