NLL: Thunderbirds prepare to meet Rock in quarterfinals

Josh Jubenville tries to block Stephen Keogh. Halifax, Nova Scotia – Dec 10, 2021: National Lacrosse League game between the Halifax Thunderbirds and Toronto Rock at the Scotiabank Center in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Trevor MacMillan/Halifax Thunderbirds)

The Halifax Thunderbirds have one more shot against the Toronto Rock this season. They played Toronto three times during the regular season, more than any other team, and won the season series two games to one. They will face their rivals one final time in the quarter-finals on Friday night in Hamilton, Ont. Game time is 7:30 and it’s the Game of the Week on TSN.

“When you’re playing a team three times, you want to win the series. But it’s a different ball game now; it’s playoffs, right. It’s one game and you’re done,” said Halifax forward Stephen Keogh. “We just have to focus on what we need to do to be better and win this game. I thought the coaches put a good game plan together. It’s up to (the players) to come out, work hard for each other, and we need to come right out of the opening face off with some intensity and have that continue throughout the game.” 

Halifax winning the season series doesn’t tell the whole story heading into this game. They beat Toronto twice early in the year, but both teams went in different directions to end the season. Toronto has eight wins and two losses in their last 10 games and is second in the East with 13 wins and five losses. Halifax won their previous two games but have four wins and six losses in their last 10. They are third in the East with 11 wins and seven losses. 

These two teams played each other on April 16, with Toronto winning 15-7. That was tied for the second-fewest amount of goals Halifax scored all season. Toronto has allowed the fewest goals in the league, the second-fewest shots per game, and goalie Nick Rose has the league’s third-best save percentage at .803. 

“Last game, I thought they did a good job getting out on our hands and not allowing us some easy opportunities,” said Keogh. “This weekend, we gotta focus on getting to the dirty areas, swinging the ball, getting the goalie moving, and just being confident in our shooting. I think last game, we were second guessing ourselves; we were holding on to the ball a little longer. We just gotta get it in and out of our stick and get Nick Rose moving side to side.” 

Offensively, Halifax scored the seventh most goals this season and fired the most shots per game. Sophomore Clarke Petterson led the team in scoring with 72 points in 17 games, 24th in league scoring. 

Toronto is also strong offensively. They scored the third most goals and took the third most shots. Leading scorer, Tom Schreiber, scored 86 points in 16 games, and his 47 goals are tied for first in the league. They’re also dangerous in transition; Challen Rogers, Mitch de Snoo and Latrell Harris are top 11 in the league in defensive scoring. 

“I think the most important thing here is just getting on and off the floor with the defence and offence,” said Halifax defender Tyson Bell. “I think that is going to stop transition on their side and obviously going to help our side when we get our defence on the floor.” 

On the defensive end for Halifax, they allowed the sixth fewest goals against per game and the third fewest shots. Starting goalie, Warren Hill, is eighth in the league in save percentage. Halifax doesn’t have a defender among the top 18 in defensive scoring. 

One of the key elements for the Thunderbirds is playing consistently for 60 minutes. It’s a topic head coach Mike Accursi has been talking about for most of the season. Halifax has consistently been beaten in the third quarter. Toronto outscored them 4-0 in that quarter when they played on April 16. 

“We’re usually a team that we’re either good in the first half and we usually play not so well in the second half, or it could be the opposite,” said Bell. ”Accursi keeps saying if we play a full 60, it will lead us in the right direction. Just the little things like staying positive on the bench, and celebrating everyone’s successes, even if it’s a loose ball, a big hit or a nice play, I think that kinda helps with our confidence, and it will make a push for everyone to do better.” 

This is the first time the Halifax Thunderbirds will play in the playoffs. The last time the organization was in the dance was in 2018 when they were the Rochester Knighthawks. They made it to the NLL Finals before losing to the Saskatchewan Rush. The Thunderbirds are excited to play on Friday night. 

“Your main goal at the beginning of the season is you want to get to the playoffs,” said Keogh. “You want to be clicking at the right time, and it is a fun time. We’re excited, we’re going up against a good team, so we gotta come prepared and be ready to battle.”