For Toronto Rock fans, it will be a strange sight: Watching Stephan Leblanc step on to the Air Canada Centre floor wearing the orange-and-black trimmed uniform of the New England Black Wolves.
The former Rock veteran returns to Toronto for the first time as a visitor when the East-Division leading Black Wolves (4-1) battle the Rock (3-2) on Saturday night in Toronto.
The Rock’s former first-round pick in 2009 spent parts of nine seasons in Toronto and became one of the faces of the franchise. Just a few of his career highlights with the Rock include scoring the winning goal in the Rock’s 2011 championship victory along with his 601 career points with the team – a number that places him fourth in Toronto’s deep franchise history.
After an 0-2 start to the season, Toronto’s decision to part ways with the veteran on Dec. 20 in exchange for talented defender/transition player Sheldon Burns sent shock waves through the NLL.
“Even when I was playing in Toronto, I would always wonder what it would be like to come in as a visitor,” Leblanc admitted this week to NLL.com. “I guess I’ll find out on Saturday. I’ve got no hard feelings. The Rock made the choice that they needed a player that could bring some transition and some defense and they felt they could part ways with me.”
Coveted player on offense
The 32-year-old from Dundas, Ont. has quickly fit in with his new squad, recording 16 points (5G, 11A) over his first four games.
“Steph has been great,” New England head coach Glenn Clark told NLL.com. “He’s been a piece that we have liked for a long time. He’s intense. He’s active. He does a lot of the little things that we covet on offense.”
And the return to Toronto?
“The first game will be different for him and for Burns,” Clark advised. “It’ll be on their mind a little bit. Steph had a pretty decorated career in Toronto. But competition is competition. Once the faceoff goes, that goes out the window. He’ll be locked in to what he needs to do for our group.”
Burns has also had a nice start with his new team providing a solid presence on the backend along with a boost in transition. The 26-year-old has four goals on four shots since joining the Rock.
Both teams playing with confidence
It’s a meaningful game for both the Rock and the Black Wolves as the two teams are riding separate three-game winning streaks. In fact, the winner of Saturday’s divisional affair will sit atop of the East Division.
Over the past three games, the Rock and Black Wolves have found success in very different ways. The Black Wolves have been able to finish close divisional games over their streak while the Rock have been dominant on offense, outscoring their opponents 61-29 in the past three games.
“Our offense has been on fire as of late,” Rock forward Adam Jones explained to NLL.com. “Our guys have been working hard, setting picks for each other and moving the ball well.”
Jones has been terrific in a Rock uniform since being acquired in the off-season. Coming into Week 8, the Owen Sound, Ont. native is tied for the NLL lead with 36 points (14G, 22A) through five games.
“We have some good shooters. It’s not hard to get assists when I pass the ball and my teammates shoot and score,” Jones said of his play-making ability. “It’s been a lot of fun and I’m glad things are working out so well.”
‘Not an ideal time for a Bye Week’
It hasn’t been all good news for the Rock as the penalty kill continues to suffer. Toronto has racked up the most penalty minutes in the East Division (147) and has the league’s worst penalty kill at just 31.8%.
The Rock are coming off a Bye Week in Week 7. For head coach Matt Sawyer, the test during the off-week was keeping his team focused on the positives and not losing the precious momentum.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge of taking on New England,” Sawyer said of the upcoming game. “We’re chasing them in the standings. We want to see how we stack up. We need to be careful this week and we need to be ready to ‘start on time.’ We’ve been off for a few weeks. It’s not an ideal time [for the Bye Week] with the momentum we had and how we are playing. It’s our job to be good right from the hop against New England.”
Saturday’s game is the first of three this season between the two East Division rivals. The opening draw is set for 7 p.m. ET at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Jan 27.
For ticket information, check out www.torontorock.com or tune into the game on NLLTV.com
Saturday’s game will also be a free live broadcast as it is the featured Twitter Game of the Week.
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