For the second year in a row, the Halifax Thunderbirds will be traveling to Hamilton, Ontario, to battle the Toronto Rock in the Quarterfinals of the NLL playoffs.
Last season’s postseason clash between these two clubs was an absolute thriller (game highlights). The Thunderbirds were inches and seconds away from stealing a massive road victory in their first playoff appearance representing the city of Halifax but were denied by Rock goaltender Nick Rose and the clock.
However, in the end, the Rock and their Captain, Challen Rogers, sealed the victory with a blazing one-on-one goal in transition in overtime. It was a heartbreaking loss for the Thunderbirds, but, as their Captain, Cody Jamieson, put it, his team is ready to take care of business this year.
“We’re excited to get back to the playoffs,” Jamieson said. “We have a lot of faith in our group. Last year, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, and it ended in Hamilton.”
In the other locker room, the Rock are equally excited to be facing off against the Thunderbirds again. While the Rock did beat the Thunderbirds in last season’s playoffs, the two teams split the two-game series this season, and Halifax ended up winning the game the last time these two played. It’s important to note that the Thunderbirds were playing without forward Randy Staats in their loss, while the Rock were playing without reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Mitch de Snoo, in their loss.
The Rock did blow out the Thunderbirds in their first meeting this year back on January 14 – the Rock won 17-8 – but the Thunderbirds responded on March 18 with a gutsy 14-12 victory after a back-and-forth affair. That loss still stings for Rose and the Rock, but the #2 seed in the East Conference is ready to take back the bragging rights in this budding rivalry.
“We’re excited to have the opportunity to see these guys again,” Rose said. “There’s obviously a sour taste left in our mouths from when we were in Halifax, and we’ve quickly become conference rivals as well. The rivalry with Buffalo is still probably the best rivalry in the NLL, but this rivalry with the Thunderbirds isn’t far behind anymore.”
Lacrosse is known to be a game of runs, and that’s exactly what helped the Thunderbirds prevail in the last match with these teams. The Thunderbirds didn’t go on any extended runs in the last game, but a couple of three-goal runs sprinkled throughout the game didn’t do much good for the defense’s confidence. Rose and the defense are ready to limit the Thunderbirds’ offensive spurts.
“Throughout the season, we’ve gone on cold streaks throughout the game, and it’s about trying to minimize the other team’s runs,” Jamieson said. “We try to stay within our own system and not get too up or down.”
Ultimately, when you make it to this stage of the season, winning requires a particular type of mental and physical toughness. After five months of sacrificing blood, sweat, and tears, you need enough drive and willpower to earn a NLL championship.
The Thunderbirds have been in must-win mode for about a month now, and they feel that the pressure-filled games they played in April will help them in May. Remember, last weekend, the Thunderbirds were playing the Georgia Swarm in a win-or-go-home match just to sneak into the playoffs.
“We realize the circumstances in a do-or-die game – we’ve been in that situation for the last couple of games now,” Jamieson said. “This single-elimination game isn’t going to be new to us. We’re going to put our best foot forward and battle a really good Toronto Rock team.”
As for Rose and the Rock, it’s losses like the one they just suffered against the Buffalo Bandits two weeks ago, or even further back against the Bandits in last year’s playoffs, or even further back in previous playoffs over the last decade that are pushing this team to finally get back over the hump to win it all again.
“I think it comes down to us learning from some of those losses and realizing what it’s going to take to get to the next level and hoist that trophy,” Rose said. “Last year was about as tough as it gets in terms of close losses with a trip on the line to the finals, but at the same time, we didn’t even lose to the champs last year.”
The Rock haven’t won a NLL title since 2011, and the Thunderbirds (who were the Rochester Knighthawks at the time) last won in 2014, capping off their historic three-peat. The Rock last played in the NLL finals in 2015, and the Thunderbirds franchise last participated in the finals in 2018.
There’s no way to determine who will come out on top when these clubs go head-to-head on Friday night, but if this season’s Quarterfinals match is anything similar to last year’s instant classic, NLL fans are in for a treat to kick off the 2022-23 NLL Playoffs.