By Matt Cullen / NLL.com Correspondent
Photo by Micheline V / Rochester Knighthawks
The Toronto Rock (1-0) have an early-season test facing the two-time defending NLL champions Saskatchewan Rush (0-1) on Saturday, January 14 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
The Rock are coming off a convincing 12-5 victory on the road against the Rochester Knighthawks, while the Rush aim to bounce back after a disappointing 18-10 road loss to the Georgia Swarm.
Despite Saskatchewan’s season-opening loss, Rock head coach Matt Sawyer knows his opponent will be tough.
“They are the best in the league and they have been for two years,” Sawyer told NLL.com. “They have a great organization and a really nice roster. We’re going to have our hands full, no doubt about it.”
The Rush swept the season series against the Rock last season (2-0) winning both games of the home-and-home series on March 25 & 26.
Including the playoffs, the Rush have won five straight games in Toronto dating back to 2013.
‘That’s how we want to play’
Throughout the pre-season, coach Sawyer emphasized improving the team’s transition game, which resulted in four Rock goals in Rochester.
“It was really important for us,” Sawyer elaborated. “We were really strong defensively from the goaltender out. You only get those opportunities if you have good defensive stops. We [also] had 17 more loose balls than [Rochester]. That’s just another 17 more possessions. That’s how we want to play.”
With a 5-13 record last season, the Rock missed the playoffs for just the third time in franchise history. This year, led by first-year captain Brodie Merrill, the Rock are sporting a younger roster, which includes eight players either in their first or second year.
While Kieran McArdle, Jordan Magnuson and Mike MacDonald each scored their first career NLL goal, veterans Brett Hickey (3+2) and Kasey Beirnes (3 goals) led the way.
‘Different level of motivation’
“[Saturday’s game] is a great early test for us to see where we stand, “Toronto’s Merrill told NLL.com. “Maybe even a little bit of history after playing [the Rush] in the finals two years ago. You want to treat every game the same in a lot of ways. But truthfully, it does have a different feel playing against the returning champs. There is a different level of motivation.”
The Saskatchewan Rush will certainly be aiming for a better performance after backup goaltender Tyler Carlson allowed 18 goals on 51 shots against the Swarm.
Saskatchewan led the league last year in goals against, giving up just 190 over the 18-game regular season.
However, the Rush will get a boost as No. 1 goaltender Aaron Bold is expected to play after serving a one-game suspension from an altercation in the pre-season.
Bold led the NLL with a 10.30 GAA last year while posting a 12-5 record.
Special teams and loose balls are also categories that Saskatchewan will look to improve. The Rush gave up six power-play goals against Georgia and surrendered three more shorthanded.
“We got outplayed, outworked, and they executed better,” Rush head coach/general manager Derek Keenan told NLL.com correspondent Scott Zerr this week. “It was a really good wake-up call. There wasn’t a sense of urgency and a sense of taking care of business. It was more of a fun trip to Georgia and we didn’t put in the work.”
The Rush were also dominated in the loose ball category (74-56) while being outscored 10-3 in the second half.
Saturday’s game in Toronto is Minor Lacrosse Night presented by Bell Let’s Talk. $1 from every ticket sold will support the Canadian Mental Health Association (CHMA).
Rock owner Jamie Dawick will also match every dollar from ticket sales to the home opener. All proceeds will support local mental health programs.
It’s a 7:00 p.m. ET start time from the Air Canada Centre. For tickets, head to www.torontorock.com.
NOTES: Rock forward Dan Lintner will serve a one-game suspension after receiving a major penalty for high sticking in a pre-season game on Dec. 21. Lintner was able to play in the team’s first game as an appeal from the Professional Lacrosse Players’ Association (PLPA) was still being reviewed….Toronto forward Stephan Leblanc did not play in Rochester due to a lower-body injury suffered in practice. He is a game-time decision for Saturday…Rush forward Ben McIntosh is expected to suit up after he served a one-game suspension from a pre-season altercation.