NLL: Rock beat Thunderbirds in tight quarterfinal game… again

Dan Craig flies on the goal. Halifax Thunderbirds vs Toronto Rock, May 5, 2023. (Photo: Christian Bender)

It’s becoming an annual tradition: the Toronto Rock and Halifax Thunderbirds in the first round of the playoffs. As with many traditions, this observance (called the ‘NLL Quarterfinals’) includes fierce faceoff battles, superior goaltending, a Halifax comeback to force a tight game. And, in the end, a Toronto Rock victory, 15-11.

Last year’s hero was Challen Rogers scoring in transition in overtime. Unlike last year when he played defence due to Dan Dawson’s return to the lineup, Friday night saw Zach Manns step up with six points in the absence of Tom Schreiber.

“In my opinion he’s the best player in the world,” said Manns who finished with his first career playoff hat trick. “We have a very deep team for this specific reason: when guys go out in the playoffs.”

Manns’ six points jokingly earned him the nickname ‘Playoff Zach’ according to head coach Matt Sawyer. “He’s someone who’s supremely talented and he’s a bit of an X factor for us,” said Sawyer. “He has a knack for coming up big in big moments.”

Like wheeling over the top and sending a sidearm shot past a double screen to cap a Rock five-goal run, putting them ahead 11-6 three minutes into the fourth quarter. After Halifax tied the game at six on a tremendous individual effort by Randy Staats on the power play, Toronto came out of the TV time out to score three goals in 1:38.

‘Playoff Zach’ completed his hat trick after a three-goal-in 1:07 run from the Thunderbirds. Dan Craig thought he’d scored his third of the game minutes later, but Mike Accursi’s challenge showed Warren Hill stop most of the shot, but as the ball trickled toward the line he swung his stick behind him to bat it off the line. Hill was spectacular all night stopping 38 of 50 shots faced, many of them acrobatic.

Ryan Benesch answered the no-goal, but three Toronto empty-netters down the stretch sealed the 15-11 victory.

Craig finished the night with a pair of goals, but had four others called back. Stephen Keogh scored the opening goal 1:07 into the game and the Rock never trailed. Keogh had four points (two goals). Corey Small scored the other Toronto hat trick.

“We have a lot of very talented shooters on our team and I feel like any night any one of us could get hot,” Manns said of the offence.

Craig, however, credited Nick Rose (30 saves) and the defence. “It’s stock standard, it’s what we expect every game” said Craig. “We know there’s not going to be cheap goals going in on that end, we can play confidently.”

With or without Schreiber, Sawyer believes the entire team is playing with confidence. “Unfortunate circumstance, not having what we feel is the best offensive player in the league,” he said. “Out of that comes opportunities for others… It just shows that we’re a complete team.”

They’ll need to be a complete, confident team in another annual tradition – a semi-final series with the Buffalo Bandits.