With Rob Hellyer returning to the Toronto Rock’s offense on Friday night, captain Challen Rogers was moved back to defense. Rogers’ best play of the night, however, was an offensive one – the game winning goal in overtime. Rogers scooped up a loose ball, ran the length of the floor, and took a shot on his off side to give the Rock the 14-13 win over the Halifax Thunderbirds.
The Rock now await the winner of the Albany FireWolves and Buffalo Bandits game for their East Conference Final opponent, while the Thunderbirds season has concluded.
Hellyer returned to the lineup after missing most of April on the IR. He scored twice and added three assists in his return.
“If Robby wasn’t playing tonight, Challen wouldn’t have been playing offense,” Rock head coach Matt Sawyer stated after the game. “I’m glad he had that moment. Challen is far and away the best all-around player in the game of lacrosse… I’m not pumping his tires; that’s a fact. To have someone as good as he is, be able to do what he does offensively, there hasn’t, to this point, been a player like him.”
Headed into Friday night’s contest at FirstOntario Centre, the two teams were evenly matched. Just two wins separated their regular season records, but the Rock had the fortune to be hot at the right time, while Halifax struggled in the second half of the season.
The Rock took it to Halifax early and often in the first quarter, building up a 5-1 lead to avenge their goaltender Nick Rose, victim of an early game hit from Jake Withers while Rose was out of his net. Oh, Rose was absolutely fine. But the message was clear: touch our goaltender and you’ll pay. The collision led to a scrum at the benches, and Latrell Harris was sent off for a body check while Halifax was hit with an illegal substitution penalty.
Tom Schreiber scored during four-on-four play, and the 7,241 fans in attendance went nuts with that first goal. Rose then proved he hadn’t been rattled a bit by Withers’ hit, stopping Tyson Bell on a fast break. Zach Manns’ crease dive put Toronto up 2-0, then less than a minute later, Latrell Harris fought off Chris Boushy, out-ran Eric Fannell, and flipped the ball downwards and in as he approached the net. Schreiber’s second goal put Toronto up 4-0. Mitch de Snoo’s three-on-two transition goal chased Halifax starter Warren Hill in favour of Aaron Bold. Hill’s night was over; he made 10 saves on 15 shots.
“I said to the guys at the start, we’re going to see both of them. I didn’t realize it would be like that,” Sawyer said. “We prepared more for [Hill] because he started every but one game for them. For Bold to come in cold off the bench and play how he did, that’s a credit to him. He’s been a really good goalie in this league.”
Bold’s entrance briefly sparked the Thunderbirds, as Fannell scored on a long shot from near the restraining line to get Halifax on the board.
After the second quarter started, the energy fell off a little in the arena as both players and fans settled into a regular routine. There was less nervousness; the pace was less frenetic as the business of lacrosse took over.
Hellyer put Toronto up 6-1 at the 6:21 mark, but Withers won the faceoff and passed to Ryan Terefenko, who got Halifax’s second goal with an overhand shot. After that exciting 10 seconds, the pace slowed down again until a Toronto power play, in which Rogers slyly passed the ball behind his back to Dan Dawson who dove over the crease for a goal.
Rogers may have been back on D in this game but he was still the quarterback of the first power play unit and their short-man unit. He’s lucky he never gets confused with all the switching around he does.
“Throughout the week I expect to play [everywhere],” he said. “I’ve been getting used to it throughout the year. Our coaching staff does an unbelievable job, helping me prepare to play up front or out the back door. [The rest of the team] supporting me is a huge help in that as well.”
Austin Shanks beat Rose with a bullet 54 seconds later. He nearly scored again on the next possession, but de Snoo got hold of the ball instead and beat Bold on a fast break for his second goal of the game. Dan Craig scored just over a minute later getting past Colton Armstrong with a backdoor cut.
Toronto held a large 9-3 advantage at halftime.
“We should have had that game over and done with, with a 9-3 lead,” Sawyer said. “It’s funny, or ironic I guess, that we’ve been a second half team. It’s all about our slow starts. Guys are so good in the third and fourth. But you never know what you’ll get each night. This was the total opposite here tonight.”
You saw the score at the beginning of this story, so you know that Halifax made a major comeback. It started early in the third.
Withers lost the opening faceoff but recovered the ball in his own end and just ran right past everyone to beat Rose. Halifax then scored on two consecutive power plays, with Schreiber and Dan Craig both in the box – more irony, considering they were two of Toronto’s least penalized players during the regular season with just two minor penalties each. Cody Jamieson and Shanks got the goals for the Thunderbirds. Stephen Keogh then scored Halifax’s fourth straight goal which closed the gap to 9-7. It briefly brought the boo birds out in Hamilton.
Hellyer got the Rock back on track, throwing fakes every which way before beating Bold. Tyson Bell replied, accepting a pass from Terefenko and scoring on the fast break. Toronto was able to cap the period with a pair of goals; Manns and Dawson each scored their second of the game to put Toronto up 12-8.
But like the third, Halifax came out on fire in the fourth, this time scoring five in a row, and they did it in five-and-a-half minutes. Suddenly they led 13-12. Captain Cody Jamieson beat Rose stick side; Brad Gillies got around Manns with a face dodge to get to the net; and Clarke Petterson scored through traffic.
Keogh then tied it with an overhand shot. Fifteen seconds later Dawson Theede’s overhand gave the Thunderbirds the lead.
“They were putting us in positions where we had to think about what we were doing and that’s when we were on our heels a little bit,” Rogers explained. “You look at Shanks and Petterson and Jamieson up there; they had a few snipes just shooting around bodies and making shots harder for Rosey to see.”
Schreiber’s hat trick goal halfway through the quarter knotted the game back up 13-13. Neither team was able to score again, although they both tried their hardest. Halifax was stoned by Rose with 1:56 to go as he first stopped Terefenko, and then Colton Armstrong with the rebound, in transition. Rose came up big again in the dying seconds with another pair of saves, seeing Petterson’s shot through traffic AND then stopping rebound that Stephen Keogh picked up point blank. The buzzer went with Halifax still pressing, and the ball went in the goal a split second too late.
“When neither of our units are going well, Rosey just finds ways to pull out wins for us,” said Rogers. “I wouldn’t say it was our best effort on defense. There were a lot of mistakes and a lot of things we can learn from. You look at the last five shots or so that Rosey faced in that fourth quarter. Three quarters of the net was wide open and he found a way to make the saves and keep us in it.”
Rogers intercepted a big rebound in his own end, and with Josh Jubenville running interference on Fannell, was left all alone to face Bold.
It was a pretty epic sports moment, and if the Rock go on to win again, and perhaps again after that, this particular goal will always be included in the stories that are told of the season.
“I’ve shot on Bold throughout my career, so I had an idea what I wanted to do,” Rogers said. “I thought he would extend a little bit if I was just looking and making it look like I was going to shoot short side.”
Most players that the other team identified as threats were effective in the game, but each side was able to control the pace enough to give themselves a chance. Jamieson, Shanks and Keogh all had a pair of goals for Halifax, though Chris Boushy was limited to one assist. Schreiber got three for Toronto, and Manns and Dawson each two. Schreiber led everyone with 15 shots. Withers led Halifax with 13 loose balls and Rogers has 12 for Toronto. Withers won 21 of 31 faceoffs in the game. Bold finished with 32 saves, and Rose with 41.
“We were pretty aggressive. We weren’t really standing on our heels, we were going forward and playing on our toes and that made it harder for them,” Rogers said. “Obviously in the second half they were doing that to us. Credit to them, they could have bowed out and called it quits, but they fought back. I’m just glad we have Rosey to make those big saves at the end and finish it.”
The roar of the crowd certainly made a difference, he said.
“We may have had more people in attendance in previous games but you wouldn’t know that from the sheer excitement and noise our crowd brought. Before overtime started, that might be the loudest I’ve ever heard our [fans]. To get a win in such an exciting fashion, was a special moment.”
FirstOntario Centre will host another playoff game, and the Rock’s opponent will be known by Saturday night. Stay tuned to the NLL’s social channels and NLL.com for the up to date schedule.