NLL: Rock have work to do after 17-9 home opener loss

Reid Reinholdt of the Toronto Rock reaches for the ball that Evan Kirk of the Saskatchewan Rush has his eye on during the Rock’s home opener on December 16, 2017 at the Air Canada Centre. (Photo credit: Anna Taylor)

The Toronto Rock were defeated by the Saskatchewan Rush 17-9 in their home opener Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto in front of 8624 fans.

Prior to the game, tribute was paid to Gord Downie, the late Canadian music legend and frontman of the Tragically Hip. The Rock partnered with the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack fund, an initiative that encourages reconciliation between Canada’s Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, to donate $1.00 from every ticket sold to the fund.

The Rock came into Saturday’s game after falling to the Buffalo Bandits in a wild 13-9 shootout loss the week prior. The Rush, on the other hand, flew into town donning their brand new jerseys for their first game of the season. One key match-up of this game was how the Rush would not only size-up the Rock, but how they would face the formidable opponent that is a first week bye-week.

In almost an exact replica of the Bandits’ game, the Rock started down two goals to none as Saskatchewan’s Ben MacIntosh and Curtis Knight scored in the first two minutes. The Rock battled back to tie it at two, with Adam Jones scoring his first in front of the hometown crowd and Tom Schreiber getting his first of the season, but dropped the first period five to three as Saskatchewan’s Evan Kirk came up with a larger than life save as time expired in the first quarter. It was not his only highlight reel save of the game.

“We had a lot of good looks on Kirky but that’s not good enough. We need to find a way to find the back of the net,” said Rock head coach Matt Sawyer after the game. “We were committed up there and we were competing and battling… so we have something to build on coming out of this.”

Robert Church dodged a defender at the 2:33 mark to open the second period scoring. Nick Rose challenged the play but Church dunked the ball over him to put the Rush up 6-3. Flashbacks of last week’s Buffalo Bandits game danced in Rosey’s eyes as Mark Matthews dove around the back of the net and slipped the ball past his right shoulder to put the Rush up 7-3, a controversial call that was reviewed, but stood as a “good goal.” Though, that momentum would not last more than 10 seconds as Rob Hellyer responded in rapid fashion to pull the Rock back within three.

Back-to-back goals by the Rush from Macintosh and the newly-acquired Jeff Shattler marked the end of Rose’s night as he was pulled in place of former Orangeville Northman Brandon Miller, who was challenged early, making three quick saves as the Rock tried to restore the grips of this game. This led to a Rock goal as a misinterpretation by Kirk allowed Brett Hickey to pot his second goal of the game.

The last five minutes of the half were a good old fashioned goaltender’s battle as game-saving stops were made by Brandon Miller. At the other end of the floor, Kirk made a sprawling goal-line save, stretching every last limb out to catch a piece of the rubber ball, but he ended up allowing Hickey’s hat-trick goal through shortly thereafter.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” said Hickey. “We have to work harder and sacrifice more. They beat us to a lot of loose balls and had a lot of second chances and I think we gripped our sticks up front.”

The Rush jumped back to a four-goal lead as Curtis Knight finally beat Miller just 29 seconds into the third. A laser like pass from Matthews moments later set up a one-timer hat-trick goal for Macintosh to put the Rush up 11-6.

Toronto’s Brad Kri and Saskatchewan’s Jeremy Thompson get into it after a face-off during the Rock’s home opener on December 16, 2017 at the Air Canada Centre. (Photo credit: Anna Taylor)

A short two-man advantage for the Rock came and went as Kirk stood tall, helping his Rush defense hold off the five-on-three play but as the penalty expired, “Mr. Clutch” Reid Reinholdt, scored. Shattler answered back 22 seconds later. The Rush had an answer for everything the Rock tried. Marty Dinsdale and Damon Edwards traded goals to end the quarter.

Saskatchewan capitalized on a delayed penalty as Church notched a hat-trick goal sandwiched by power play markers from Ryan Keenan and MacIntosh to begin the fourth. Church’s goal sparked some fisticuffs between Toronto’s Billy Hostrawser and Saskatchewan’s big man, Mike Messenger. It was the first fight for Hostrawser, previously known as a pugilist, since the 2016 season. Hostrawser bloodied Messenger, connecting on four punches.

As the final horns echoed through the ACC, the Toronto Rock dropped to 0-2 on the season after back-to-back losses by arguably beatable opponents. A total of 28 goals scored in this game showed just how offensive the tempo of this game was. The Rush did a good job of pushing their transition into the Rock’s zone and using their defensive pressure to limit the Rock’s offensive presence in front of a red hot Evan Kirk, who made his Rush debut in fashion, replacing fan-favourite in Aaron Bold, making a total of 39 saves.

“We weren’t good enough to play against a team like that and come out with a win,” Sawyer said. “Right now we’re not happy and it’s not a happy room, it’s not a happy time right now.”

But, he noted, “this is a good group and we’ll pull ourselves out of it.”

The Rock have given up 30 goals in their two games. With such a short season, the Rock have to remain competitive. The aggression level of the team must be heightened in order to claim their season back. Lacrosse is a game of streaks. Even a team down two games in the season can still hoist the Champion’s Cup come playoff time.

The Rush roll on with their season as they host the New England Black Wolves at SaskTel Centre on December 23rd, as the Rock have a rematch date with the Buffalo Bandits on December 30th back at the ACC.