NLL: Rock surge past Swarm in semi-final

Brock Sorensen reaches out the stick to stop Zed Williams. Toronto Rock @ Georgia Swarm, May 6, 2019. (Photo credit: Kyle Hess)

And down goes the NLL’s other powerhouse.

After the Toronto Rock’s 16-14 East Division semi-final win over the Georgia Swarm, the NLL Cup will feature two new teams for the first time since 2014.

With the Saskatchewan Rush defeated on Friday night and the Rochester Knighthawks failing to make the playoffs, the Swarm were the last recent NLL Cup competitor left standing. They’ve had nothing but strong seasons since moving to Georgia and won the NLL title in 2017. This season they had a 12-6 regular season record, and though the Rock had an identical record, the Swarm held quite the mental edge over their rivals. Toronto had won only two prior meetings between the clubs.

Head coach Matt Sawyer had previously stated that he thought the Rock play their best lacrosse against the Swarm, and in this semi-final game that statement rang true.

“It’s a one-game showdown with two possible outcomes: you win and you move on or your season’s over,” said Sawyer in a press release. “Georgia was a team that had our number and the guys were sick of it. It was our time to get a big win against them and it was nice to do it on the road.”

Georgia started strong, scoring twice 2:25 into the game. But Toronto came back with four goals in a row, the highlight coming as left-handed shooter Johnny Powless converted Kieran McArdle’s pass with just his right hand on his stick. The Swarm retook the lead at 5-4 with three transition goals from Zed Williams, Randy Staats and Brendan Bomberry. Toronto thought they tied the game when defender Brock Sorensen tried a dunk move from behind Mike Poulin, but upon Georgia’s challenge it was revealed that Sorensen’s hand broke his fall into the crease before the ball ricocheted in.

The first half of the game took nearly an hour and 15 minutes to complete with three long challenges and a stoppage so the Rock equipment staff could fix the carpet near their bench, which was coming up and posed a safety hazard.

Rob Hellyer’s jump shot that opened the second was also challenged, but ruled inconclusive, so it stood for the 5-5 tie. Sorensen made his next shot count with a crease dive that gave the Rock the lead. They rattled off three more to make it a five-goal run before Miles Thompson stopped the bleeding, converting Shayne Jackson’s behind the net pass. McArdle and Holden Cattoni traded goals near the end of the half. The Rock led 10-7.

“Everyone in the lineup did a little something extra,” Sawyer praised. “You can go around the locker room and praise the whole team. I really felt Brock Sorensen had his best game in a Rock uniform tonight. I’ve coached him in junior and coached against him a lot in the past as well, but that was the best game I’ve ever seen him play.”

Toronto continued to take it to Mike Poulin and the Swarm in the third, outscoring them 3-1. Poulin was injured in the Swarm’s game against Calgary on April 12 and it looked to be serious, so it’s possible some lingering pain was a factor in the semi-finals as he just wasn’t as strong as he’s known to be. This was evident especially in the third when McArdle’s shorthanded pass to Dan Craig missed its mark but bounced in through Poulin’s five-hole. It was just one of several shaky moments for the veteran goaltender.

And at the other end of the floor, Nick Rose was solid, playing in front of a defense that has spent years gelling together. Damon Edwards returned from the IR to keep the Swarm in check while Sorensen and Billy Hostraswer threw their weight around just enough to knock the Swarm forwards off their game. Rock captain Challen Rogers is certainly capable of streaking in for fancy transition goals but played a more cautious game, handing off to his offense instead, knowing what was on the line.

Jordan MacIntosh of the Georgia Swarm. (Photo credit: Kyle Hess)

Swarm captain Jordan MacIntosh was the lone bright spot for Georgia in the third, as he scored an impactful dunk goal late in the frame to try and spark his team for the final quarter.

Jackson snuck a ball past Rose’s foot at 1:45 of the fourth, but it was a few minutes before they would score again. Lyle Thompson’s pump fake got Rose down early and then Thompson put the ball right over top of him at 8:28. Toronto equaled those two goals: Brandon Slade scored on a transition break less than a minute later and then Schreiber got open in front of Poulin to make Slade’s pass count. Holden Cattoni and Adam Jones then traded goals, Jones’ into Georgia’s empty net at 12:25 which had Toronto up 16-11. Many of the fans at Infinite Energy Center started leaving at that point, but those who stayed were treated to a spirited last-ditch effort from their Swarm, who scored three times to close out an exciting game.

“I don’t think our team and our defense and our offense were at their best, so that was kind of a whole group (thing),” Swarm head coach Ed Comeau said in a team press release. “I said to the guys after, that’s the lesson in this league. If you want to have success, you’ve got to be at or near your best for a lot of the game, and we weren’t.”

Randy Staats scored on a power play and Lyle Thompson and Jackson each scored with extra attackers on the floor as the Swarm weren’t prepared for such a sudden ending to their season.

“True to form, we made it interesting,” joked Sawyer about the final moments of the game. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a tense final few minutes.”

Jones led the Rock with nine points including a hat trick and six assists, as Toronto’s best offensive opportunities continue to flow through their left side. Schreiber (4G/2A), Craig (2G/4A) and Hellyer (2G/4A) all recorded six points, while McArdle chipped in five (2G/3A). Nick Rose made 35 saves and was solid right up until the Swarm’s last push.

Jackson had eight points for the Swarm (2G/6A) while Lyle Thompson had seven (3G/4A). Randy Staats was three and three and Holden Cattoni scored twice and added five assists. Poulin made 33 saves. Jordan MacIntosh led all runners with 13 loose balls and 23 faceoff wins.

If you thought this was an exciting game, just wait. The Rock will face their fiercest rivals next when they visit the Buffalo Bandits in the East Division final on Saturday, May 11 at Keybank Center. The winner of that game will advance to the best-of-three NLL Cup series.