By Matt Cullen | NLL.com staff writer
Photo Credit: Graig Abel
The Toronto Rock (5-3) are set to face the visiting New England Black Wolves (3-6) in a crucial East Division matchup at the Air Canada Centre on Friday, March 3.
This is the first of two meetings this year and it marks New England’s only regular-season trip to Toronto. Both squads are aiming for bounce-back performances after tough Week 9 losses.
The Rock gave up more than 11 goals for just the third time this season, falling 15-12 to the rival Buffalo Bandits on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Black Wolves suffered their third loss in four games, dropping a 14-9 decision to the Colorado Mammoth on Sunday.
The defeat proved to be costly as the Black Wolves lost captain and leading scorer Shawn Evans with a minute to go in the first half.
“Shawn has been moved to the IR so he won’t be available this weekend,” head coach Glenn Clark confirmed during an interview with NLL.com. “He’s got to follow up with our doctors. I don’t know if it is just this week or two weeks or four weeks. We’re not sure at this point.”
Daryl Veltman will play his second game with the Black Wolves after being signed on Feb. 22. He registered a goal and an assist in his debut with New England on Sunday. Clark is counting on Veltman to step up on the left side after the team traded lefty Pat Saunders to the Bandits on Tuesday.
Saunders, who was fifth in team scoring with 25 points this season, was dealt for a second-round pick in the 2017 NLL Draft.
Coach Clark confirmed that Chad Culp and Zach Reid, who missed Sunday’s game, are game-time decisions for Friday.
ROCK KEY IN ON DEFENSE
Despite giving up a season-high 15 goals to Buffalo, the Rock are still the league’s top defensive team. Toronto has allowed an NLL-best 76 goals (9.5 per game). However, Rock head coach Matt Sawyer knows his squad has to be better on Friday.
“The Buffalo game wasn’t our best defensively,” Sawyer told NLL.com. “We’re looking forward to addressing a few things. That being said, we’ve been really strong in seven of the eight games that we’ve played. Defense is our strength and we need it to be our strength. I’m quite confident that we’ll regroup.”
Friday’s matchup is crucial for both teams as the race in the East Division continues to tighten. All five teams have at least three wins and apart from the division-leading Georgia Swarm (7-1), the East’s other four teams are all within 2.5 games of each other.
The Rock come in holding second place while the Black Wolves are fourth, just a half-game back of Buffalo for the final playoff spot.
“The East is very deep,” Sawyer said. “No matter how you start, it’s going to come down to how you finish. Anytime you play in the division, it’s a big game and even more so when you play at home. It’s a very important game for us especially because we dropped a division game last week. We don’t want to string too many of those together.”
Clark emphasized that although it isn’t “must-win” time yet for New England, the division games are pretty close to it.
“We’re at the halfway mark. We’ve got to start stringing some wins together or you lose touch with [the teams] in front of you and around you. It’s big. We’re not at a ‘must-win’ time yet but it’s certainly very important especially midway through the season. We’re in a position where we are chasing.”
Although the Rock activated veteran goaltender Brandon Miller on Feb. 24, Nick Rose is expected to start on Friday. Rose leads the NLL with a 9.36 GAA and is second with .798 save percentage.
Friday’s game is a 7:30pm ET start and it marks the Rock’s Star Wars charity night in support of Smilezone foundation, where all proceeds go towards community living projects. There will also be a game worn jersey auction with a Star Wars dark side theme directly after the game. Check out www.torontorock.com for more details.