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Transition key as Rock become first team to defeat Thunderbirds

The Halifax Thunderbirds are mortal, after all.


The NLL’s last remaining undefeated team fell from their perch at the hands of the Toronto Rock on Saturday night 12-9 at Scotiabank Arena.


The Rock were short five regulars but still managed to get past their new North Division rival in their first clash.


“You’re dealt that hand from time to time,” said Rock head coach Matt Sawyer. “We got to see our depth tonight. It’s a team game and guys got opportunities and they certainly stepped up and performed tonight.”


In particular, he mentioned Jamieson Dilks making his debut, and rookies Zach Manns with three assists and Scott Dominey who had two goals.


“Zach Manns had his best game as a feeder tonight, getting a lot of first assists off good ball,” said forward Dan Dawson, who led with a hat trick.


Dawson’s first tied the game at one and came as he had Cory Becker draped all over him. Dawson managed to get the shot off as he hit the ground. Damon Edwards put the Rock up 2-1 shortly thereafter with the Rock’s first transition goal of the game; Dominey put them up 3-1 by the end of the first with another tranny goal. They had five on Friday.


“We needed to speed the game up here tonight and the plan was to push the ball because that’s the easiest way to score goals in this game,” Sawyer said. “We needed to speed the game up. Our transition game hasn’t really been there this year and tonight we needed it since we only went with six guys up front.”


Missing Adam Jones, Tom Schreiber, Dan Craig, Brandon Slade and Latrell Harris, the Rock looked to be in tough against the surging Thunderbirds, but that’s where the transition came into play.


“[Our transition] controlling and pushing the pace makes their D play on their heels,” Dawson explained. “When you allow defenses to get settled in this league and get the matchups they want they’re going to dominate. And that’s the key with transition: not just getting the goals on the back end but pushing the pace and holding their D guys accountable getting off the floor.”


Halifax scored three straight to go up 4-3 in the second, that run started by a transition goal of their own from Colton Armstrong. Clarke Petterson finished the run with his first of two on the night. The Rock replied with four to lead 7-4 at halftime, that stretch highlighted by Adam Jay’s airborne transition goal. Captain Challen Rogers, playing out the front door, scored with an extra attacker on the floor to end the half.


Toronto kicked off the third with three goals in a span of 2:07 with Dawson completing his hat trick. Rob Hellyer, who Dawson complimented for drawing attention to him so Dawson could get open, also scored before Dominey continued the transition dominance.


“We controlled our minutes up front and we valued possessions early,” Dawson said of the key for the offense.


When the Thunderbirds had their own transition opportunities, Nick Rose came up big including a stop on Graeme Hossack that kept the Rock up five. Though the Rock failed to capitalize on a five-minute power play with Hossack subsequently in the box, Hellyer was able to close out the quarter with his second of the night with a wicked underhand from the restraining line.


Rose made a big left pad save off Ryan Benesch coming off the bench in the fourth, but Josh Jubenville was called for checking from behind on the play and Petterson scored just 12 seconds into the power play. That kicked off a span of four Halifax goals in a row, keeping the 10,946 fans in the arena on the edge of their seats. Of note, Benesch scored his 445th career goal, moving him past Shawn Williams for eighth all time. Cody Jamieson then fought off two defenders and did a spin-o-rama before scoring shorthanded.


“You’re up 11-5 you’re not comfortable,” Sawyer said. “They’ve had real good second halves and we expected they would push. We let them in on the power play and they have some good shooters and shots fell.”


The Thunderbirds’ Jake Withers continued his incredible dominance in the faceoff circle, having the best game of his career so far with a 92% win percentage. He only lost two, and one of those came with .02 seconds left on the clock – hardly enough time to properly contest the faceoff. He’s had a perfect game in the summer with the Peterborough Lakers, and it’s likely he’ll accomplish that feat sooner rather than later in the NLL as well.


This was the Rock’s first game in the 2020 Alterna Cup and they immediately jumped into top spot with a win percentage of 100%.


The Rock next host the Buffalo Bandits on Sunday, February 9 in a 3 p.m. game. The Bandits previously defeated them 10-8 at Keybank Center so the Rock will be looking to even their record. Halifax has a bye week and is next in action on Saturday, February 15 when they host the Saskatchewan Rush in another Alterna Cup match.