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Sports Interaction Game of the Week Preview: ROC at TOR

NLL veterans Shawn Evans and Dan Dawson have experienced a lot and almost seen it all during their long professional lacrosse careers, including the historic, sometimes heated and always tightly contested rivalry between the Rochester Knighthawks and Toronto Rock.

“It’s been a close rivalry for years,” says Evans, who entered the NLL in 2006 with Rochester and won the NLL championship in 2007.

“Those years the Rock had some big-name players like Doyle, Sanderson, Watson, and the Knighthawks had John Grant Jr., Shawn Williams and Pat O’Toole. Those games were just electric in the building. Both teams have legends who have played this game, and it’s going to continue this weekend on Saturday night.”

Legends indeed. And Saturday night is when Evans’ Knighthawks visit Dawson’s Rock (-1.5, O/U 22.5) at FirstOntario Centre in the Sports Interaction Game of the Week on TSN (7 p.m. ET, TSN2).

Evans played with Rochester until 2011 before moving onto Calgary where he was the NLL MVP in 2013 and ’15. He has also had stops in New England and Buffalo.

“I’ve been in this league 16 years now, and I’ve seen a lot and played in a lot of big games,” says Evans. “Rochester is considered a second home for me, having played almost 10 years here dating back to the previous Knighthawks franchise.”

Saturday night’s matchup is as big as any as Rochester and 1.5 point favorite Toronto try to gain traction in the East Division standings. Both teams are 2-3 and coming off two straight losses. The Knighthawks lost back-to-back games last weekend and went 0-2 against the spread in their games versus Georgia (12-8) and at Philadelphia (18-10), while the Rock had a bye last weekend after losing in OT on Jan. 15 against Halifax (14-13) but still managed to cover the 1.5 spread.

“Yeah, last weekend wasn’t our best lacrosse,” says Evans, who against Philadelphia became the fifth player in NLL history to record 800 career assists. “We need to hit the reset button, and get back to just playing lacrosse and doing what makes us successful. Every game is a big game, and we need to be ready.

“This is a big game for both teams. 3-3 is better than 2-4, and puts us in a better position to get back on track. It’s going to be a great game, and might come down to the fourth quarter to decide it.”

Toronto’s Dawson has a similar assessment of Saturday’s importance: “We’re one-third of the way through the season after this weekend, so there’s no doubt in our minds we want to be 3-3. At some point we have to find that sense of urgency or the season gets away from you very quickly.”

Dawson, an NLL rookie way back in 2002 with Columbus, also recently reached some truly impressive major career milestones.

Against Halifax on Jan. 15, Dawson became the second player in league history to play in 300 games (only Buffalo Bandits legend and current coach John Tavares has played more at 306) and moved into second all-time in NLL points with 1,447, passing legend John Grant Jr. Tavares leads that category with 1,740 career points.

If that wasn’t impressive enough Dawson, the 2009 league MVP with Boston and three-time NLL champion (Rochester in 2013 and ’14; Saskatchewan in ’18), needs 18 more assists to become the all-time leader at 935, passing Tavares.

Evans, meanwhile, needs only three goals to pass Josh Sanderson for ninth on the all-time goals list with 450 and eight penalty minutes to pass Geoff Snider for third all-time with 583.

“This is an absolute must-win for us; it’s an absolute must-win for Rochester,” says Dawson, who has also suited up for Arizona, Portland, Philadelphia and San Diego before landing in Toronto in 2020.

“We are playing a team in our own division … these head-to-head matchups are extremely important. We know the parity that’s happening across league, and obviously in the East we’re fighting for a playoff spot right now and so is Rochester.”

Like a true lacrosse warrior who has been through years of on-floor battles Dawson certainly understands the storied Knighthawks-Rock rivalry, but looks at it with a bit of different perspective.

“It’s a long, historic rivalry. So many [games and moments] to draw on. For me I’ve been on actually the other side [Rochester] more than I have with the Rock,” says Dawson, who played for the Knighthawks from 2013 to ’18.

And Dawson’s recall also certainly includes the thrilling 2000 NLL championship–called the “Greatest Professional Indoor Lacrosse Game of All-Time” and one of the most memorable moments in the league’s 35-year history–in which the Rock’s Kaleb Toth scored on Knighthawks goalie Pat O’Toole with one second remaining in regulation to give Toronto a 14-13 win before more than 14,000 fans in the final sporting event held in the historic Maple Leaf Gardens.

“But at the same time, that’s in the past,” says Dawson. “There’s a rich history between these squads, but we’re just more focused on the current Rochester team and obviously the current Rock.”

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