By Matt Cullen / NLL.com Correspondent
Photo by Graig Abel / Toronto Rock
The Toronto Rock (2-0) fended off a ferocious comeback to top the two-time defending NLL champion Saskatchewan Rush (0-2) 13-11 on Saturday in front of 10,275 fans at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
With offensive veterans Stephan Leblanc, Brett Hickey and Dan Lintner out of the lineup, Rock rookie Tom Schreiber (1+4) and second-year forward Turner Evans (1+4) led the way against a motivated Rush squad.
“Everyone had to do their job,” Schreiber told NLL.com after the game. “No one was trying to do too much…It was one of the most exciting games that I’ve played in. A lot of ups and downs. It was loud. It was a lot of fun.”
Schreiber, along with fellow rookies Challen Rogers (1+1) and Reid Reinholdt (1+2), all scored their first career NLL goals. With key veterans missing, Rock head coach Matt Sawyer was quick to praise his young players.
“We are confident in our young guys. They are here for a reason,” Sawyer told NLL.com. “It’s great for them to contribute to a win. That’s the nature of the sport. Lots of times you have injuries. You can’t worry about who isn’t available – only who is.
“A lot of good things came from tonight,” Sawyer continued. “Obviously, it’s a lot easier to talk about it when you pull out the win. We gave away that lead and all the momentum was going [Saskatchewan’s] way…but fortunately we found a way to come up with some timely goals.”
The Rock got off to a perfect start as Mike MacDonald opened the scoring just 10 seconds into the game, beating Rush starter Aaron Bold.
Bold missed his team’s first game while serving a suspension for a pre-season altercation.
Just 1:34 later, Toronto’s Phil Caputo keep the home crowd cheering, scoring his first goal with the Rock to make it 2-0.
Toronto continued to dominate on offense, getting another goal from MacDonald at 9:28. Toronto defender Damon Edwards then followed up with two straight goals, including a shorthanded marker at 13:28 to give the Rock a commanding 5-0 lead after the first quarter.
Saskatchewan, which gave up 18 goals in its season-opening loss in Georgia, allowed five goals on 13 shots in the opening frame.
The Rock reeled off three of the first four goals in the second quarter and continued to excel in transition, scoring six times in the first half.
Rogers, the second-overall pick in the 2016 draft, will certainly remember his first goal, beating a defender then running free to score on the ensuing breakaway.
Toronto won 20-of-28 draws in the game and captured 77 loose balls, compared to just 56 for Saskatchewan.
Rock goaltender Nick Rose was excellent in the first half, stopping 22 of 24 shots, giving the Rock an 8-2 lead at halftime.
In the third quarter, Toronto scored two quick goals, including one from veteran Kasey Beirnes, who reached a milestone scoring on his 1,000th career shot to give Toronto to a 10-2 lead.
COME BACK TIME
But the Rush were not going away without a fight.
Saskatchewan stunned the Air Canada Centre crowd scoring eight of the game’s next nine goals – including four on the power play – to cut the Rock lead to 11-10 with 6:24 to go in the fourth quarter.
Robert Church (3+2) scored a hat trick on the man-advantage, all set up by veteran forward Mark Matthews (2+7), to make the game close.
“It was kind of tough to settle down in that third quarter,” Rose told NLL.com “On those power plays, they’ve got a bunch of weapons…Obviously a sign of a good team is to battle through adversity.”
Rose finished the game with 36 saves on 49 shots.
‘FOUND A WAY’
The Rock found a way to get the momentum back with two key goals from rookies Kieran McArdle and Reinholdt to re-establish a three-goal lead (13-10) with 5:09 remaining.
Reinholdt played in his first NLL game and was thrilled with the opportunity.
“It was exciting,” the Pitt Meadows, B.C., native said. “I was little bit nervous at the start. I made a few mistakes. The game got interesting at the end and that’s where it got fun.”
With Bold on the bench, first-overall pick in the 2016 draft, Ryan Keenan (1+2), scored with 42 seconds left, but the Rush couldn’t complete the comeback.
“We had a big hill to climb,” head coach and general manager Derek Keenan told NLL.com. “Once we figured out that we needed to work as hard as [the Rock], then we got back in the game. We need to learn from that…we need to be a whole lot better.”
“We didn’t quit,” Keenan emphasized. “We played hard right through the end. We obviously need better starts.”
The Rush outscored the Rock 9-5 in the second half.
Saskatchewan’s Bold led the league in goals-against-average last season (10.30). He gave up 13 goals on 49 shots.
Leblanc missed his second straight game with a lower-body injury. Hickey, who recorded five points in the Rock’s season-opening win in Rochester, also sat out with an injury.
The Rock’s next game is against the visiting Rochester Knighthawks at the Air Canada Centre on Jan. 28 at 7:00 p.m. ET. The Rush play their home-opener against the very same Knighthawks on Jan. 21.
Three stars selected by the media:
- Nick Rose (TOR)
- Damon Edwards (TOR)
- Turner Evans (TOR)