The Calgary Roughnecks (3-8) will host the Toronto Rock (10-3) at Scotiabank Saddledome for the second and final matchup of the season between the two teams on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET. Watch the game live on TSN GO in Canada and NLL LIVE in the U.S.
The Riggers are going into this game after a big 20-9 win against the New England Black Wolves last weekend, which seems to be a good starting point for the winning streak the team needs.
“We challenged the guys to be better, we don’t have tomorrow; we have to win now,” said Roughnecks head coach Curt Malawsky. “We can’t give up games, we can’t pass up games. You never want to express that urgency to the players to put a lot of pressure on them, but the gloves and helmets are off for us now, they all know where we sit. The challenge was it’s either today or never. We’ve got a lot of character in that room, the guys stepped up they played really well… We liked the way we played and it was a good stepping stone for us moving into this weekend.”
Knowing where they stand, and the immediacy of their situation sparked a fire for the ‘Necks players. The team’s blowout victory last week was its strongest performance this season.
“They played with a lot of passion and emotion that I hadn’t seen all year,” Malawsky said. “These guys really care about team success, and that was a big turning point for me looking at the guys on the bench.”
After celebrating a huge win, the Roughnecks are now back to business and focusing on Saturday’s game, the team is fully aware of the threat the Rock poses to its playoff run.
“It’s a whole different animal playing the Rock,” Malawsky said. “I watched the game on the weekend against Edmonton and that was a war. We had a war down in Rochester and it was a war up in Edmonton, so we’ve been a part of a few of those. But you gotta battle for every inch you got on the floor…I expect them coming hard at our guys.”
“They’re very well coached and very disciplined, they move the ball very well, they have great goaltending and their defense is big, strong and very aggressive. We’re going to have to come up with a real good game plan,” Malawsky added.
Falling to another team after every triumph is a trend for the Roughnecks this season, they are looking to break that pattern and string together two wins for the first time this year. However, it will be an uphill battle with the Rock in town.
“This weekend’s a huge game for us coming off a big win, every time we come off a big win we kind of face a good team. It’s gonna be another test for us this weekend,” said Roughnecks forward Shawn Evans.
Replicating the strong start the Riggers had against the Black Wolves will be a key factor for the team, as they focus on defeating the Rock, who are first in the NLL.
“I definitely think the start’s going to be a big part of it,” Malawsky remarked. “Early in the year, teams were attacking us early thinking we’re going to fold, we took that personally. We tried to really work on our starts, and we came out of the gates hot last weekend. We’re hoping to do the same thing because you get behind five or six against Toronto, I don’t think you come back.”
Evans will be looking to stack more points onto the 83 he has tallied so far this season. He believes that playing with the same energy they did last week should propel them to victory.
“Toronto’s a good team,” Evans said. “We watch video on them; we watched their game last weekend too. They’re a strong team that moves the ball well we gotta come out a quick start like last weekend…If we do that, I’m sure that things are gonna hopefully go our way.”
Using its losses as a lesson has been important to the Roughnecks. The coaching staff is looking back at their Rochester games, and will be looking for the ‘Necks to get into the rougher areas on Saturday night.
“I think our guys learned from the fact that when we got a couple put on our wrists, and tailbones in our Rochester games,” Malawsky admitted. “We stood around the outside, I expect our guys to get right to the dirty areas, that’s the only way to score against Toronto, you gotta get to the middle of the floor and they don’t make it easy. By far, I believe this is going to be our toughest test of the season.
The Rock, fresh off its first home loss of the season, look to rebound on the road and will have to do so without their top player in Rob Hellyer, who suffered an upper body injury in last Saturday’s defeat against the Edmonton Rush. Hellyer left for the locker room ahead of halftime and never returned. Following the game, Toronto Rock owner and general manger Jamie Dawick explained the injury as just a precaution. However it was reported Wednesday morning that Hellyer will be placed on injury reserve, which means the league’s leading scorer will have to sit out for a least ten days. At which time, Hellyer will be reevaluated by the team’s medical staff.
“Losing him, it’s obviously a big hole for us,” said Rock forward Kevin Ross. “But we’re not an offense, that’s going to rely on one guy on any given night to get the job done.”
The Rock are no stranger to suffering big losses. Roughly the same time last season, Toronto lost Garrett Billings to a torn ACL. At the time of injury, Billings, like Hellyer, was leading the league in scoring and looked poised to hold that title until season’s end.
The Rock called upon Hellyer to fill the void Billings left and his 86 points (31+55) over 13 games this season speaks loudly to his success in doing so. But the Rock’s back pocket, at least for now, is without a savior anywhere close to Hellyer’s caliber. Toronto is faced with the objection of acting as one, functioning by committee on offense.
“The key to our offense this year is our unselfish mentality and keeping the ball hot,” said Ross, who has tallied up 40 points (16+24) thus far.
Exit Hellyer and enter Brandon Benn, a 22-year-old Orangeville native with only a couple NLL preseason games under his belt. Despite this, the Rock hold very little reservation in adding brand new skin to the lineup.
“We got a great guy in Benn, I think he showed in the preseason that he is an NLL caliber player and we don’t expect him to replace Rob, but we expect him to have a good showing,” Ross added.
Over two preseason games, Benn found the back of the net four times, finding success both on the powerplay and five-on-five play. The youngster nabbed a hat trick against the Rochester Knighthawks in a game played played at the Bell Centre in Montreal.
“Benn is going to be one of our rights on the team and it’s going to be a tough game for him in terms of playing his first game in the NLL, but coming out of training camp he was very good,” said Toronto head coach John Lovell.
“We have confidence he’s going to be able to do this.”
Benn and the rest of the Rock squad will get their first taste of life without Hellyer against the Roughnecks, a once struggling team that may have finally found their balance. After starting the year to a franchise-worst 0-6, Calgary has won three of their last five games. Two of those wins were against Rochester and Edmonton, teams with a combined record of 15-7.
“I still think Calgary is one of the best teams in this league, they present an unbelievable challenge in terms of their offense. They have four or five real good players there,” said Lovell. “They are always a major challenge to defend.”
The biggest challenge for Toronto’s back-end will surely be forward Shawn Evans, who carries the league’s best points per game average (7.54).
In related news, the Knighthawks signed restricted free agent Garrett Billings to an offer sheet on Friday night which means that the Toronto Rock have until Monday night to match the offer in order to retain the services of the All-Pro forward.
By Laura Bates (@RoughnecksBeat) & Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) for NLL.com. Photo by Dave Abel.