You’d be hard pressed to find many games in the NLL that don’t have a lot of meaning.
Already this season the Toronto Rock have beaten their arch-rival Buffalo Bandits and stoked the flames of their ever-growing rivalry with the Georgia Swarm. Friday’s contest at Scotiabank Arena versus the Saskatchewan Rush proved to be the biggest game of them all, and once again, the Rock were victorious, defeating the defending champions 16-13.
“We don’t pay too much attention to the West teams,” said Rock head coach Matt Sawyer, indicating that his team is confident whoever the competition may be. “We don’t get occupied with our opponent. We feel that if we can be at our best we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win.”
The win keeps the Rock in first place at 6-1 while the Rush’s record drops to 3-3.
“Their record doesn’t show it but they’re a good team. We were prepared tonight and we played a full 60,” said Adam Jones, who had four goals and four assists in the win.
The first quarter was the busiest as the teams felt each other out. Dan Lintner scored 35 seconds in. Rob Hellyer popped a goal in from the restraining line at 2:52 for a 2-0 lead before the Rush found their legs. Mark Matthews found Ben McIntosh cutting to the net at 4:05. Twenty-eight seconds later McIntosh fed Matthews who scored a high-to-low goal to tie it. McIntosh scored a bouncer 28 seconds after that to put the Rush up 3-2. The Rock then scored three goals each nearly a minute apart: Johnny Powless tied it back up on a power play while Jones scored twice from his sweet spot on the left side. The Rush sandwiched a Kieran McArdle marker to end the first with 11 goals between the two sides.
The Rock are a noted transition team, but the Rush held the defense scoreless in the first, breaking up three attempts to run.
“It’s easier to transition the ball in the second and fourth when you have the long change for the other team,” Sawyer explained. “Transition isn’t something you can force or create. It happens by the ball being on the ground or playing good strong defense.”
Though Sawyer said the team made no adjustments for it between quarters, three of the Rock’s five second quarter goals were scored in transition. The first was just eight seconds in as Jay Thorimbert found Brandon Slade off a faceoff win. Jones was then able to get off the bench early and convert Latrell Harris’ pass at 2:12. Curtis Knight broke up the run but Creighton Reid buried one after accepting a backwards flip pass from Brad Kri, who was knocked to the floor for his efforts.
“We don’t cheat,” Sawyer said. “There’ll be some games where we don’t create any transition but we got going pretty good in the second there.”
Lintner stole a loose ball from the crease and stretched his body out to beat Evan Kirk to give the Rock a 10-6 lead with 5:55 left. Marty Dinsdale scored for Saskatchewan but Dan Craig tiptoed around the crease after taking Lintner’s pass to give the Rock an 11-7 lead at halftime.
“We have a lot of speed up front, though maybe not myself,” said Jones, tongue-in-cheek, “but a lot of other guys are really quick and that opens up space for people to shoot and we got a lot of nice goals cutting off ball which is how you go far in this league. I can’t point out one specific person (as standing out) because everyone contributed. That’s what good teams need to do.”
Rock captain Challen Rogers opened the third with a transition goal before the Rush found some fight with a three-goal run. McArdle’s second and Jones’ fourth had the Rock up 14-10 heading into the final quarter.
Saskatchewan’s desperation showed in the fourth as they found themselves in the penalty box three times, once for an elbowing major when they should have been making a game of it. The Rush never gave up – one wouldn’t expect them to – and scored three goals, including two shorthanded. They needed four to tie, that is, if the Rock hadn’t picked up two more as well.
“We’ve been talking about finding other ways to win a lot this year and it’s nice to know that we can win against a quality team like Saskatchewan when our goaltending and our defense wasn’t A+ in the first half,” Sawyer said. “Having said that, I thought Rosey was fantastic in the fourth. They had a push… they controlled the play.”
Jones’ 4G/4A led the Rock. Rob Hellyer scored two goals and five assists while Dan Lintner and Kieran McArdle each had 2G/2A. Tom Schreiber was held to a single goal and four assists. Nick Rose made 33 saves for the win.
Ben McIntosh (3G/2A) and Mark Matthews (2G/4A) led the Rush. Evan Kirk made 36 saves.
The Rock have next week off to rest but resume play on February 15th with another meaningful game. Not only is it Pride Night with the Rock, they will be hosting the San Diego Seals for the first time. And the Seals are the only team better in the West than the Rush.