Challen Rogers thinks his Toronto Rock are up to the challenge of getting on a roll.
The 2-2 Rock have been on an up-and-down rollercoaster this season, with an opening win followed by a loss followed by a win followed by a loss. Toronto’s only real consistency so far has been its slow starts.
But Rock captain Rogers is confident his squad can turn it on, turn it up and turn it around against the visiting Halifax Thunderbirds on Saturday night at FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton ON. The East Division matchup and all-Canadian Alterna Cup tilt is also the Sports Interaction Game of the Week on TSN (7 pm ET/TSN2).
“It comes down to focus,” says Rogers. “We’re a team that when we have confidence, we’re a tough team to stop. And confidence comes from preparation. It boils down to starting on time, being engaged with every shift and playing freely.”
The Rock are chasing the 2-0 Thunderbirds in both the NLL Eastern Conference and Alterna Cup standings. The two teams met earlier this season on Dec. 10, a 11-7 Halifax home win in which the Thunderbirds jumped out to a 6-1 lead by halftime and 7-1 early in the third quarter. As it sits, Toronto is at the bottom of the charts at 0-1 in Alterna Cup matchups whereas the Thunderbirds are leading at 2-0.
“We had a slow start, and when we score minimal goals in the first half it can be deflating,” says Rogers, the two-time reigning NLL Transition Player of the Year (4 goals, 5 assists this season). “Mistakes happen in this sport all the time. It’s about minimizing those self-inflicted mistakes and finishing our opportunities. We need to give ourselves the best opportunity to win.”
Toronto lost 12-6 last week at Buffalo in another rough-and-tumble chapter of that historic rivalry. But familiarity breeds contempt, and Rogers foresees a similar Bandits-type rivalry with Halifax.
“The rivalry between Buffalo and Toronto stems from decades of battles,” says Rogers. “What creates a rivalry are two teams that have a history of hard-fought and close games.”
“I certainly think that there is a rivalry brewing with the Thunderbirds. Halifax has to be at the top of our list. Every game we always seem to have tight battles with them, and we’ve been neck and neck with them in the standings. With both our aspirations to win the East and win a NLL championship, I think that the games will only be more intense and certainly spark a rivalry.”
The Rock will get a boost from the return to the lineup of veteran scorers Dan Dawson (3 goals, 6 assists in three games this season; Saturday will mark his 300th career game) and Tom Schreiber (8 goals, 2 assists in two games) but will be missing forward Reid Reinholdt (5 goals, 9 assists) and defender Brandon Slade, both out with lower body injuries.
The Thunderbirds, meanwhile, expect captain Cody Jamieson to make his season debut on Saturday, returning to the lineup from injury, but is a gametime decision.
Against Halifax on Saturday, Toronto will be simultaneously trying to slow down Thunderbirds forward Clarke Petterson (6-goal sock trick, 1 assist in Dec. 10 game versus the Rock) while getting to goalie Warren Hill (45 saves on Dec. 10). Halifax has not played since that game against Toronto, or any road games yet this season, due to pandemic-related postponements.
“Hill played very well last time,” says Rogers. “We’re looking to get some by him early and build momentum.”
Thunderbirds netminder Hill has an 8.40 goals-against average and .824 save percentage in two games this season while his Rock counterpart Nick Rose is 10.25 and .776 in four games.
And while Toronto tries to claw its way up the Eastern Conference standings with a win against Halifax on Saturday, the all-Canadian Alterna Cup competition is also in the back of Rogers’ mind.
“Any chance you’re able to put yourself at the top of the Canadian leaderboard, it feels good,” says Rogers, from Coquitlam BC. “We want to be the best and if we’re at the top of the Alterna Cup standings, we’re on the right path.”
Saturday’s game will be be broadcast nationally in Canada on TSN as the Sports Interaction Game of the Week.
“The nationally televised games help our sport grow and give young lacrosse players around Canada a vision and a potential dream,” says Rogers. “Exposure is what the sport of lacrosse needs. And with the best sports network in the country televising NLL games, it can only help the sport grow and get more eyes on the sport.”
Due to current government COVID restrictions there will be no fans in attendance at FirstOntario Centre on Saturday, which makes the TV and digital coverage even more important.
“For all our fans not being able to attend the game, they will still have the opportunity to watch us from home and be able to cheer us on,” says Rogers.
The Toronto Rock have one of the most loyal fan bases and were off to a 2-0 start this season in front of the Rock faithful.
“I certainly think it’ll be different not playing in front of the best fans in the league, but it gives us more incentive to win for those that aren’t there,” says Rogers. “We know the energy that they bring every night propels us, but we’re going to have to find that energy from within.”