Friday’s game is one that the Toronto Rock have had circled on their calendars for a very long time.
Once at the top of the NLL standings, the Rock (9-5) were dethroned by the Buffalo Bandits (12-3), their fiercest and longest serving rival. The Bandits were the first team to clinch a playoff spot and have been sitting pretty in in first place ever since. The Rock are 2.5 games back of the Bandits for first place but could catch up if they finish the season strong.
The season series between the foes is tied at one game apiece, with both prior contests taking place at KeyBank Center. Friday’s rubber match will determine the season’s winner – and give whichever team wins a big confidence boost heading into playoffs.
The Rock clinched their spot in the post-season last Saturday with a 12-11 win over the Philadelphia Wings. It snapped a two-game losing streak, and the Rock also scored into double digits for the first time in three games.
“It was nice to see our offense, which is much maligned and rightly so with what we’ve done, come through there,” head coach Matt Sawyer said.
Part of the spark was a big game – seven points – from Johnny Powless on the left side where the Rock have been lacking since Adam Jones went down with an injury. Challen Rogers playing out the front door on the power play also helped, as he put in two big goals early in the game. In their prior four games the Rock had only scored on three of their 15 chances but with Rogers quarterbacking the power play they scored three times on five opportunities.
The Rock had a five-goal lead in the third but allowed the Wings to close the gap and nearly tie the game. Should the Rock find themselves up late again, they’ll have to keep their foot on the gas against much stronger competition in the Bandits.
“We’ve had a tough four week stretch here and we need to be better than that game if we want to accomplish our grand goal,” Sawyer said.
Buffalo had a bye last week, meaning their last game was their 8-6 win over the Rock on March 23rd. The Rock led 4-0 after the first quarter of that one, but the Bandits roared back and tied it with a 4-0 run of their own in the second. Matt Vinc will challenge for another NLL goaltender of the year award, and behind his defense, he held the Rock to just two more goals in the second half.
What makes that defense so strong is their ability to scoop up loose balls – the Bandits lead the NLL with 1132 loose balls, 70 more than second place Calgary and 124 more than Toronto.
Toronto is led by Tom Schreiber (72 pts) and Rob Hellyer (65 pts). Dhane Smith (84) and Shawn Evans (81) are Buffalo’s top scorers.
Matt Vinc leads the league in GAA with 10.30 while Nick Rose sits in ninth with 11.73. Vinc is also first in save percentage with .799 while Rose is eighth with .770. Neither team’s backup – Zach Higgins and Riley Hutchcraft – has seen any significant time this season.
Game time is 7:30 p.m. at Scotiabank Arena or online via B/R Live.