With three games left in the season, the East Division standings could not be closer.
And in terms of playoff position, the stakes could not be higher.
Friday night will certainly feel like a playoff game when the Rochester Knighthawks (8-7) travel north of the border to battle the Toronto Rock (7-8) at the Air Canada Centre on April 13.
In fact, the standings are so close that all five teams in the East are all within one game of each other. The Knighthawks sit in a three-way tie for first with the Buffalo Bandits and the Georgia Swarm while the Rock and the New England Black Wolves find themselves on the outside, just one game back.
“I don’t think it’s been this close in a while,” Rock coach Matt Sawyer said to NLL.com. “I think it speaks volumes about the quality of teams in the east and the competition that there is. Each and every night, any team can beat any team. There are no easy games. It’s a good rivalry. It’s intense. To be honest, that’s the way it should be.”
This will be the third and final regular-season meeting between the two rivals. The Rock took the first two games winning 17-9 at home on Jan. 12 and 12-9 in Rochester on Feb. 10.
“The Rock are very dynamic,” Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen said to NLL.com. “They love to push the ball. Once Rosey [Toronto goalie Nick Rose] makes a save, they are pushing the ball. That has not changed on their part and they have been doing that well all year long. The group that they have, any one of their forwards can go off on any night. They are dangerous. We need to focus on our game plan to keep them in check.”
Trending in opposite directions
In their last meeting on Feb. 10, the Rock and Knighthawks left the Blue Cross Arena trending in opposite directions at the midway point of the season.
Toronto held a 5-3 record and was battling for the top spot in the division. Meanwhile, Rochester sported a lowly 2-6 mark and the thought of a playoff berth was slipping away.
Much has changed since then.
The direction of the Rock’s season took an unexpected twist in that road win over Rochester. Star forward and leading scorer at the time Tom Schreiber left the game in the fourth quarter after colliding with two Rochester defenders. He was diagnosed with a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and has missed the last seven games.
“The timeline was six-to-eight weeks,” Sawyer said about Schreiber’s potential return on Friday. “Tom really wants to be out there and he really wants to be playing. Over the last few weeks, we really felt and he really felt that he was getting close. We are right around that eight-week mark. Everything is progressing well. But we won’t know until we practise on Thursday night. We will go from there.”
Since Schreiber’s injury, the Rock have posted just a 2-5 record and the offense has been producing at a considerably slower pace. In the first eight games of the season, Toronto averaged an impressive 15 goals per game with Schreiber in the lineup. However, the Rock’s goal scoring has dropped off over the last 7 games, averaging more than 4 fewer goals per game (10.71) with the 26-year-old star watching from the sideline.
Rochester’s remarkable turnaround
While the Rock have struggled over the last 7 games, the Knighthawks are playing their best lacrosse of the season with an impressive 6-1 stretch since the team’s last meeting with Toronto in February.
The Knighthawks have outscored opponents 103-79 over the seven-game stretch, including recent wins over the West-Division leading Saskatchewan Rush and the second-place Colorado Mammoth.
“The biggest change is the confidence,” Hasen said about his team’s recent surge. “We haven’t changed our game plan too much. We are not doing anything different. Shots have started to drop for us. That is a credit to our guys and sticking to our plan.”
Friday’s game is a 7:30 p.m. ET start and it is the Rock’s final home game of the season. Toronto will try and lock in a playoff spot on the road taking on the Bandits (April 21) and the Mammoth (April 28) in the final two weeks of the season.
The Knighthawks will finish their season with a pair of East Division matchups against New England and Buffalo.