By Graeme Perrow
Wow, did that game ever suck. The Toronto Rock squandered an opportunity to clinch first place in the Eastern division and keep pace with Calgary for first overall, losing 11-8 to the Buffalo Bandits, who move ahead of the Rock into first in the East. The game was the final home regular-season game in Bob Watson's hall-of-fame career, and the Rock organization celebrated it with a ceremony before the game, as well as video tributes from current and former Rock players including Kaleb Toth, Dan Stroup, Josh Sanderson (and his dad Terry), Sandy Chapman, and Pat Campbell. Captain Colin Doyle, Rock owner Jamie Dawick, and Watson's own daughter Sydney gave short speeches, and Watson acknowledged his teammates, Rock ownership and management, coaches, trainers, as well as the fans.
As for the game itself, I thought I was heading to a Rock/Bandits game, but must have missed the paper handed out in the lobby saying "For tonight's performance, the role of the Toronto Rock will be played by the Colorado Mammoth". Good goaltending, with periods of great goaltending, solid defense, and absolutely no offense to speak of. I don't want to take anything away from the Buffalo defense, which was also solid, and Mike Thompson was great (with periods of outstanding), but the Rock O was just not there. They missed passes all over the place, frequently decided to pass rather than shoot (at one point Kyle Ross had nobody between him and the goalie five feet away, and still passed), and were just generally anemic all night. The Bandits offense wasn't an awful lot better – there were more dropped balls and passes to nobody in particular on both sides than you'd expect from 8-4 and 10-4 teams and as a result, this was not a very entertaining game.
After the touching ceremony for Watson, the Rock and the Bandits got down to business. The Toronto crowd of over 15,000 was pumped and it was nice to see that level of attendance again. The Rock haven't announced the attendance at a game in a couple of years, and haven't hit 15k for at least that long. It didn't take long to make the crowd happy, as Jon Harasym was given a bogus cross-checking penalty less than two minutes in, and Kasey Beirnes scored his first of three on the resulting power play. Pat Merrill scored on a breakaway a minute later, and it seemed that the Rock were also pumped and might just run away with this game. Not so fast. At 4:48, that was it for the Rock scoring in the first quarter. Tracey Kelusky scored 30 seconds after Merrill's goal to get the Bandits on the board, and Brett Bucktooth tied it a couple of minutes later. John Tavares and Chad Culp scored to give the Bandits a 4-2 lead before the Rock finally got their third goal (about 22 minutes after their second), and their fourth goal was a beautiful passing play. Colin Doyle passed to Kasey Beirnes standing on the left side of the goal, but rather than one-time it in from there (which Thompson expected), he passed it cross-crease to Stephan LeBlanc who buried it. Props to Thompson who managed to change direction quickly and actually have an attempt at stopping the shot.
For the rest of the game, it seemed that the Rock were trying to replicate that goal, and passed the ball as much as possible rather than take shots. Unfortunately for them, this led to a bunch of wasted possessions, as they just passed until the shot clock ran out. For a Rock fan, I'm giving props to the Bandits quite liberally today, but they deserve them – this time they go to the Bandits defenders who seemed to read the Rock attackers really well, and just put their sticks in the air and blocked I don't know how many passes. Once or twice the ball went into the stands and give the Rock a fresh 30, sometimes they actually intercepted the ball and had a transition chance, but most of the time they just deflected it harmlessly away from the Rock players.
The Rock took a two-goal lead early in the third, and then things fell apart. The Bandits scored seven unanswered goals to take a 11-6 lead. The desperation set in early for the Rock, and they started pulling Watson for the extra attacker with four or five minutes left in the 4th. It did pay off, as Garrett Billings and Kasey Beirnes scored with under a minute to play, but it was way too little and way too late. Once again, the Rock went about 24 minutes between their sixth and seventh goals.
Not exactly the way Bob Watson likely envisioned his final regular season game at the ACC, but he wasn't the reason for this loss. The good news for the Rock is that they already made the playoffs. The bad news is that they no longer control their own destiny with respect to home playoff games – if the Bandits win out, they grab first in the east regardless of what the Rock does in their one remaining game. If the Rock lose to Edmonton next week and Rochester wins out, Toronto could even find themselves in third, and could potentially have no home games. The Bandits are in action tonight against the Knighthawks, then Boston next Saturday and Rochester again the week after that.
Other game notes:
- Watson was the first Rock player through the post-game handshakes, and it was nice to see how many Bandits players took an extra second or two and said something more than just "good game". Many even gave him a hug or a stick bump. Classy.
- When the team started their "victory lap", which they do regardless of whether they win or lose, Colin Doyle stopped and let Watson go first. Again, classy.
- At least three Bandit names were mispronounced by the Rock announcer. He pronounced Kelusky two different ways on the same goal announcement, and also got Harasym and Tavares wrong. How does anyone familiar with the NLL over the any part of the last twenty years say Tavares wrong? What we need is a list of frequently mispronounced names and their correct pronunciation. Oh wait, we have one. Tracy Kelusky is not on that list though – I believe it's "kuh-LUH-skee", not "kuh-LOO-skee".
- Why do they still have TV timeouts even when the game is not televised?
- The Bandits had a 5-on-3 power play for about a minute and a half in the first, and Bob Watson made some outstanding saves. Creighton Reid did a nice job on the PK too, getting the Bandits to chase him around the floor and eating up time.
- I'm all for being optimistic and playing a full 60 minutes, but when you've been playing like the Rock were, you're down by five, and there's only a minute left in the game, I'm not sure pulling the goalie for the extra attacker is really necessary. Yes, the Rock did score twice within the last minute, but is it realistic to even dream of three more in the last 33 seconds?