NLL: Toronto-Halifax Preview

A blip in a weird Monday matchup with Philadelphia ended a near franchise-record win streak for the Toronto Rock. Last weekend they returned to the win column with a 12-6 home victory over the Albany Firewolves. Toronto now finds itself able to clinch a playoff spot when they travel to Halifax Saturday night.

In just his second season, Rock transition player Phil Mazzuca understands the rivalry, saying in the Rock’s released practice report, “We’ve had some pretty sweet battles with them in the past.” This includes last year’s 14-13 overtime win for Toronto in the quarterfinals.

The two teams met again in Hamilton on January 14 when the Rock won 17-8. That night Tom Schreiber had seven points (five goals) and Mitch De Snoo had five.

Following their week 15 win, defensive coach Bruce Codd admitted, “I still think there were some things we can clean up.” Both Mazzuca and the former Rock defender pointed to boxing out and controlling rebounds as keys. Codd also said, “We’ll have to be very good in our communication, limit repeat possessions and their power play is always a focus as well.”

Repeat possessions will be key after goals as well. Halifax’s Jake Withers leads the NLL in faceoff wins yet again with 254 in 317 attempts. His 80.1 per cent is also a league high (for players with more than one faceoff). Toronto’s TD Ielan is just 31 wins behind, second-best in the league. The battle at the dot will be a fun one.

With De Snoo still on the injured list and the league’s trade deadline looming, the Rock acquired veteran defender Greg Downing from Albany. He’s expected to debut Saturday night. Codd respects the veteran saying, “A lot of the time when we look at trades… it’s the guys you don’t like playing against that you want to get.” Not only will Codd like having Downing on board, but he says so will Schreiber. “Tom Schreiber was very happy when we got him because he won’t be checking him anymore.” Downing is one of just five NLL players with over 1,000 loose balls and over 200 caused turnovers.

How Codd’s defense lines up from here on will be interesting. He admits, it makes players compete for floor time which, he says, “Isn’t always a bad thing.” One thing it does allow for is captain Challen Rogers to stay on offence, a role Toronto pegged him for to start the season, although he’s played out the back door due to injuries. Still, last year’s overtime hero has 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) in 12 games this season.

It’s a defense that has continually talked about limiting the opponent to 10 goals or fewer. The Rock did that 10 times this season, winning each game. Nick Rose is also a big factor, leading the league in minutes, wins and goals-against-average.

If the Rock can manage 60 or more shots, they will do so for the fourth straight game putting pressure on a Thunderbirds defense that has surrendered an Eastern Division third-worst 143 goals in 12 games.