NLL semi-final preview: Black Wolves vs Rock

New England won the season series 2-0.  Will the third time be a charm for the Rock?

Jay Thorimbert of the New England Black Wolves faces off against Bradley Kri of the Toronto Rock on March 3, 2017 at the Air Canada Centre. (Photo: Anna Taylor)
Jay Thorimbert of the New England Black Wolves faces off against Bradley Kri of the Toronto Rock on March 3, 2017 at the Air Canada Centre. (Photo: Anna Taylor)

Tonight the Toronto Rock (9-9) will host the New England Black Wolves (8-10) in the east semi-final. This round is single elimination.

The Rock earned the right to host the game at the Air Canada Centre after their 19-15 victory over Buffalo last weekend, after the Black Wolves fell in overtime to Vancouver 17-16. This will be the first time these two teams ever face each other in the playoffs, but it’s the fourth time the franchises will meet.

Back when the Wolves were the Philadelphia Wings, the teams clashed in three playoff games. In 1999, Toronto won a 13-2 runaway contest. The following season was the same result, a Wings loss in the semi-final 14-10. In 2001, the third time was a charm as they met in the finals and the Wings won 9-8. All of those games were in Toronto, just as tonight’s will be.

During the regular season the teams faced each other twice, with the Black Wolves winning one goal victories in each of them. Both teams are very evenly matched, but it’s how they have played in the last handful of games that has everyone talking about this game being a toss-up.

Toronto snapped a four game losing streak by scoring the final seven goals of the game last week to propel them to victory, while the Black Wolves have lost their last two games by a total of only three goals.

In the Rock’s case a number of things caused the losing streak: bad defense, not getting the ball inside and shooting from far away. For New England, bad defense was the main cause versus Rochester, but also, reigning goaltender of the year Evan Kirk was pulled in both losses which makes you wonder which Kirk will we see. Will it be the one who played flawlessly against Saskatchewan, or the one we saw in the last two contests?

When you look at how these teams match up, you start with the offense.

Toronto’s rookie sensation “Captain America” Tom Schreiber led the team in points with 94, and assists with 61 while netting 33 goals. Obviously he is hands down the rookie of the year. Add Brett Hickey 45+32 for 77 points, and Stephan LeBlanc 20+53 for 73 points and you have some scoring power. But after that, it’s a 28 point drop to the next player in points which is Turner Evans.

New England’s offense has been led by another Evans – Shawn, of course. The two-time MVP had another season over 100 points. Evans registered 103 points this season (38+65), while the “Big Cat” Kevin Crowley registered 85 points as he broke his career-high in goals with 45 (36 rookie season in 2012). Kevin Buchanan had a quiet 74 points (25+49). But the drop off after the top three is not much for New England. Kyle Buchanan 69 points, (31+38), and Reilly O’Connor 51 points (18+33).

When you look at the defense, Toronto was second overall in the league only allowing 200 goals, and a 10.565 goals against, led by Nick Rose’s 10.31. New England allowed 244 goals this past season for a team average of 13.975, with Kirk having a 12.83 GAA.

For team scoring, Toronto is a +31 in the first half, and a -11 in the second half.  Meanwhile, New England is even in the first half and a -24 in the second half.

Special teams will be a huge part of the game. Overall, Toronto was last in the penalty kill with 42.5 per cent and seventh while on the power play with 45.6 per cent. They also allowed a league high 12 shorthanded goals. At home the Rock were last on the power play and eighth on the penalty kill.

New England’s power play didn’t fare much better. Overall, the Black Wolves were eighth with 44.6 per cent, and on the road they were seventh at 46.4 per cent. But the strength for the Wolves on special teams is being shorthanded. They were third overall killing 50.5 per cent of their penalties and on the road they ranked fifth killing 49 per cent of the penalties and scoring nine of their league-high 15 shorthanded goals.

On face-offs, Jay Thorimbert has won 57 per cent (302-525), while Toronto had to split the draws between Bradley Kri 59 per cent (119-201), who missed several games due to injury, and Jordan Magnuson 44 per cent (119-269).

Game time is 7 p.m. tonight. If the two meetings in the regular season are any indication on how this game will go, you better be prepared for some great playoff lacrosse action.