Two of the three Canadian teams to make the NLL playoffs will face off against each other on Friday night at FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton when the Halifax Thunderbirds visit the Toronto Rock in an East Conference quarterfinal game.
It seemed inevitable that Toronto and Halifax would meet in the quarterfinals as the second and third seeds, respectively. Early in the season, Halifax was on a tear just like Buffalo, and were 8-1 before they hit a slump and lost four games in a row after making moves that should have added to their already powerful offense. Suddenly their competition with Buffalo for first place was over. They rebounded after an 11-7 win over the last place Rochester Knighthawks – but were only able to beat non-playoff teams the rest of the way, and it took until the second last week of play before clinching a playoff spot.
Toronto went about their wins in a quieter way, finishing in second place with a 13-5 record. They stood pat at the trade deadline, confident in their homegrown roster and finished the season on a five-game winning streak. Tom Schreiber finished tied for first place in the league with 47 goals this season and Nick Rose finished first among goaltenders with a 9.05 goals against average.
“Toronto has been really hot and is the team to beat right now,” said Thunderbirds’ Head Coach Mike Accursi. “When we’re in a position to play a team that’s hot and we’re still finding our way, it could be good thing. We’re hungry to prove ourselves and to prove that how we started the season was not a fluke. We beat Toronto twice in the first couple months. We’ve very capable of beating them again.”
Put these two teams head-to-head and anything can happen in a one-game playoff. Halifax took the season series with wins at home on December 11 (11-7) and on the road on January 15 (14-13 OT). Toronto finally got the better of their East Coast rival on April 15 with a 15-7 win. So Halifax has the advantage against the Rock, but the Rock have the overall record advantage, and the swagger that comes with a big momentum swing heading into the postseason.
“Yeah, near the end of the season it was the matchup we kind of expected,” Rock captain Challen Rogers said. “It’s going to be a great game. There’s so much parity in the NLL that anything can happen on any given weekend. But Halifax is a good team, and I think we’re a great team.”
The Rock worked hard to earn home-floor advantage in the first round, but Halifax won’t be walking into unfamiliar territory. With extensive COVID-19 restrictions in Nova Scotia earlier this year, two Thunderbirds’ home games were moved to FirstOntario Centre. They shared the Rock’s rink for games against New York and Philadelphia in February, and though there were no fans in attendance, they made the arena their own for those two games and won both, making their FirstOntario Centre record for the season 3-1. That will only help them now.
“It’s our home away from home,” said Thunderbirds’ defenseman Jake Withers. “We had the benefit of playing there and building a routine. Guys have their spots in the offensive end where they like shooting from in that arena. Warren Hill and Aaron Bold know the floor a little better than any other arena in the league, so we’re more comfortable there.”
“It’s a big floor, and a big arena,” recognized Accursi. “We need to make adjustments on our spaces, and those are all adjustments that we’ve already made at an earlier point in the season. We feel comfortable playing and winning there.”
But the fans will be on Toronto’s side, said Rogers.
“If we’re lacking energy our fans will bring it for us,” he stated. “They carry momentum and build momentum for us. Moving to Hamilton this year, there was a lot of skepticism around from people around the league, but Hamilton has been unbelievable. Home floor is crucial and we’re happy we earned it.”
Rock head coach Matt Sawyer agrees.
“The home crowd can give you a boost when you’re performing well,” he said. “We have a good record at home at 7-2. If you ask anyone they would prefer to play at home. It’s a good atmosphere.”
Both teams are focused right now, but while the Rock are completely confident, the Thunderbirds seem to be more cautiously optimistic.
“We’re feeling pretty good; we played a lot better in the last few weeks and we made a few changes that I think will be important moving into playoffs,” said Accursi. “We have as good a shot as anybody going in, especially the first round. We’ve been due for a big game from our unit so I’ve been excited about it.”
Withers agreed that the last few weeks have been a step in the right direction.
“We didn’t play our best lacrosse the last time we faced Toronto,” he admitted. “We were in a little bit of a slump, but we picked it up the last two games with big wins. We found the identity that we had in the first nine games of the season again. I trust our training and preparation.”
If swagger plays a factor in this game, the advantage will go to the Rock, because they have it in spades. Where the Thunderbirds floundered late in the season, the Rock just kept finding ways to win.
“Even last week, being down 5-1 at the half, we kept at it and built momentum,” explained Rogers. “We found so many different ways to win this year. Over our past 12-14 games we hit our stride and found things that make us successful and we’re really confident headed into this weekend.”
It’ll be on Sawyer to keep his players grounded and not let them get ahead of themselves or underestimate how hungry Halifax will be. But, he is sure that they’re up to the challenge. That’s what the whole season was about: preparing for playoffs.
“Confidence isn’t a one day thing; it comes from preparation and the work you’ve put in up to this point,” he said. “I am confident in our group. We’ve had a good run here but we know that all that has done is give us an opportunity to open up playoffs at home.”
Both teams like how they match up against each other, and after three contests already, they’re not strangers, either. They have no secrets between them. Several names on each team stick out as the biggest threats in need of containment.
“Toronto has two guys that have been playing lights out good in Tom Schreiber and Dan Craig,” said Accursi. “They have both had phenomenal years and they’re the huge key to how the offense performs.”
“Schreiber is a dynamic player,” agreed Withers. “He can shoot from anywhere on the floor. And Rogers is the guy that stirs the drink on their team. We have to be aware of him, but we’re excited to play against him.”
Accursi said his defense will need to control the “impact of these players and the footprints they leave on the offensive end.”
The Rock will be paying the most attention to Austin Shanks, Clarke Petterson and Chris Boushy, who combined for 184 points this season.
“They have a lot of proven performers,” Sawyer acknowledged, but “our game plan will be how to attack their overall offensive group. Regardless of the opponent we have the same approach every game. We want to go out from a defensive standpoint and dictate the pace. We want to play the game going forward, not on our heels.”
Rogers said that dictating the pace is their key to success.
“We’re really tough to stop when we put them in uncomfortable positions. Halifax has a lot of good goal scorers up front so if we can limit those guys to one goal or no goals that puts us in a good position.”
And Rogers is confident that should the defense fail, Nick Rose will have their backs in goal.
“I’d put my eggs in his basket any day of the week,” he said. “He’s the best goalie in the league. People doubt him all the time, but our group has the utmost confidence in him and he has the confidence in himself.”
Confidence, swagger, call it what you want – but in a one-game playoff, anything can happen. There is no room for error.
“We want their best, especially at home and in front of a sold out crowd,” said Withers. “You can’t take this game off. In a best of two or three, if you blow the first one, you can claw your way back. You get another chance. This weekend, you have to be ready and poised. If you don’t show up, you’re golfing.”
Game time is 7:30pm ET on Friday, and it is the Sports Interaction Game of the Week, available on ESPN+ and TSN.