In a battle of the league’s two first place teams, the Edmonton Rush (6-4) defeated its East Division counterpart with an 11-9 win over the Toronto Rock (10-3) before a crowd of 10,296 at Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.
Rush defender Nik Bilic – an unlikely hero – scored two late fourth-quarter tallies to help his team climb past the Rock, handing Toronto its first home loss in the process.
Just 20 total goals were scored between Toronto and Edmonton, a stark change from the 31 tallied up in the teams’ previous tilt in Week 9. Both Brandon Miller and Aaron Bold stood tall, proving their statistical status as the league’s two top goalies. Active sticks, great positioning and goal-posts (Edmonton hit four on them on the night) kept the scoring to a minimum. Saturday night’s meeting brought out each team’s true colors – at least on the back end.
“No surprise for me for tonight,” said Rock owner and general manager Jamie Dawick of the tidy play. “The last game was wired. This is what people expected in our play.”
The Rock in particular put big focus on league sharpshooter Mark Matthews by gluing defender Brodie Merrill on his tail for the majority of the evening. Matthews only scored twice, but that added focus unwittingly gave more space to second-year player Robert Church, who notched his third-straight hat trick on the night.
“They got a lot of tough check out there,” said Dawick. “Church was killing us on the powerplay at the top.”
The Rock’s Stephan Leblanc opened all scoring with a powerplay snipe 3:48 after first whistle. Nearly 10 minutes later, Rush forward Zack Greer answered back netting his first of the game. Edmonton’s Tyler Melnyk and Kasey Beirnes traded goals late in the frame to tie things up at two goals a piece heading into the second quarter. Church scored the Rush’s only second quarter goal 3:36 in, while the Rock got tallies from Brett Hickey and Josh Sanderson to give Toronto a 4-3 halftime lead.
Active sticks and great defensive sets from both ends left much of the second frame without many prime opportunities. Both the Rock and Rush proved their defensive prowess, holding each other to just 23 shots a piece at the half. The floodgates cracked open atop the second half as seven total goals were scored between the two teams.
Rock defender Nick Diachenko – playing on offence due to a Rob Hellyer upper-body injury – scored just 45 seconds into the third frame. Edmonton postured up by going 4-0 run in a 11:59 span to garner a 7-5 lead. Toronto’s Kevin Ross and Hickey each scored with under a minute remaining, tying the game 7-7 heading into the fourth frame. Ross and Hickey each strike again to start the fourth frame to give Toronto a 9-7 lead at the 3:10 mark.
Nearly four minutes later, Mark Matthews scored his first and only goal of the match on a pretty passing play. The Matthews goal was followed up with a couple Nik Bilic tallies to give the Rush a late 10-9 lead. Defender Ryan Dilks eventually sealed the victory by potting an empty-netter.
“It feels pretty good to do something like that,” said Bilic of his rare two-goal performance. “The key to tonight was hard work and wearing them down and I think we were able to do that by the fourth quarter.”
“It was a very exciting game,” said Rush head coach Derek Keenan. “It was physical, great goaltending on both sides. For us tonight, defense was the biggest difference.”
Saturday night marks the seventh time Edmonton has held a team under 10 goals, and heading into the year’s final stretch, that fact now calmly reverberates within the Rush dressing room. While every other NLL team has allowed more than 100 goals this season, Edmonton has allowed just 98, giving them a league-best 9.8 goals against average.
The Rock’s stalling offense can at least in part be attributed to the loss of Rob Hellyer from the lineup. Hellyer suffered what Dawick called an upper-body injury late in the first half. Toronto’s top point-getter did not return, leaving a gaping hole in the Rock’s offense.
“We’re going to reevaluate him, it’s more of a precaution,” said Dawick.
Diachenko was called to play forward for the first time since last season and played commendably. He tallied an goal and an assist on the evening, the assist coming on the Rock’s final goal of the game.
“I just wanted to get in there are contribute,” said Diachenko of just his third game this year. “It was pretty exciting going back on offense.”
“It hurts to lose, but it builds character,” Diachenko said of the loss. “Maybe the target isn’t going to be on our back anymore.”
Rush goalie Bold impressively stopped 43 of the Rock’s 52 shots for a .829 save percentage. On the other end of the floor, Miller, equal to the task, stopped 37 of 47 shots for an also strong .787 save percentage.
Sanderson (1+5) and Hickey (3+3) led all Rock shooters with six points each in the loss. Leblanc (1+2) and Ross (2+1) each followed up with three points of their own. Matthews (2+5) put up seven points in the victory, while Church (3+2) followed close behind with five points.
Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:
1) Aaron Bold
2) Brandon Miller
3) Brett Hickey
By Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) for NLL.com. Photo by Graig Abel.