By Graeme Perrow
The ending to Bob Watson's incredible NLL career couldn't have been scripted any better. Not only did he win his sixth championship with the Toronto Rock after an 8-7 victory over the Washington Stealth, but he was named game MVP for the second time in his career. And this was no "it's his last game, let's just give him the game MVP" thing, he deserved that puppy. Watson put on a goaltending clinic in his last-ever game, stopping 46 of 53 shots and keeping the most potent offense in the league to just 7 goals. Tyler Richards played a great game in the opposing goal, keeping the third-most potent offense in the league to only 8 goals, and only one in the entire second half. This was a strong defensive battle on both sides, especially considering the offensive firepower of both of these teams.
Rookie defender Glen Bryan of the Rock opened the scoring less than two minutes into the game, thereby doubling his career goals total. Cliff Smith answered a few minutes later, with a weak shot that went over Watson's right shoulder. Watson looked quite awkward on the play, but then he and the Rock defense shut the door, not allowing another goal until twelve minutes into the second quarter. "The defense was Rock-solid!" said my eleven-year-old son Ryan, very proud of his pun. Both teams played excellent defense as I said, and many of the 50+ shots taken by each team either hit the goalie square in the chest, or occurred with a second left on the shot clock.
The Rock D kept the pressure on the entire first half, and the Stealth forwards started to make mistakes when they realized their game plan wasn't working. When the Stealth did manage to get a decent shot off, Watson closed the door. Lewis Ratcliff was denied on one of Watson's brilliant saves and when the ball ricocheted into the crowd, Ratcliff simply stopped and looked at the floor, frustration written all over his body.
On Teddy Jenner's Off-The-Crossebar podcast last week, Rhys Duch said that they couldn't afford to let the Rock get off to a big lead early: "If we're going to spot Toronto a 5-1 lead like we did Minnesota, that's a hole we might not be able to dig ourselves out of". Duch was more accurate with that statement that he likely wanted to be. The Rock led 6-1 late in the second and 7-2 at the half. In Stephen Stamp's live blog of the game, he even used the word "blowout". That said however, everyone in both the Rock and Stealth dressing rooms (and I suspect many fans in the building) remembers the seven goals the Stealth scored in the 4th quarter of last year's final on their way to a comeback victory. At halftime, despite the five goal differential, nobody thinks this game is over.
The second half was more of the same at the Rock's end of the floor. Solid defense, frustrated Washington offense, and brilliant goaltending. The Stealth did start to put things together though, scoring two in the third and three in the fourth to get back to within one – while at the other end of the floor, Tyler Richards was more than doing his part and making his own bid for game MVP, keeping the Rock scoreless in the third and only allowing one in the fourth. As the Stealth slowly climbed their way back into the game, the crowd got quieter and quieter, praying they weren't about to witness a repeat of last year. But as Whipper and the D continued to stone the Stealth forwards, the clock continued to wind down.
As an aside, "Whipper and the D" would be a good name for a rock band.
The Stealth got within one at 7-6, then Stephan Leblanc put the Rock up by two once again. But just thirteen seconds later, Paul Rabil got the Stealth back to within one with an absolutely blistering shot. Rabil was circling around the offensive zone when there was only a second or two left on the shot clock. He turned towards the net and fired, while still running, what might have been the hardest shot I've ever seen. The shot hit Watson so hard it knocked him down and then trickled underneath him across the line. An unbelievable goal. Rabil's shot has been clocked at over 110 mph, so for all of you who laugh at the amount of padding lacrosse goalies wear, that's why.
In the end, despite the strong play of Richards as well as Paul Rabil, Mike Grimes, and the Stealth D, the offense just couldn't get it done. When Cam Woods picked up a loose ball with 15 seconds left, he did not shoot at the open net but just burned the clock until the horn sounded, and then joined his teammates in mobbing Watson.
Once the handshakes had been done, many of the Stealth players remained on the floor to watch the Cup presentation ceremony, and even applauded when Bob Watson approached the podium. They were given a well-deserved ovation by the crowd after a strong season and a great game. It was no surprise that Watson was named game MVP, as he was in 2002. There was really nobody else that could have been game MVP – the Rock played very well as a team but nobody other than Watson really stood out. (If I had to choose second-place, I might go with Kasey Beirnes.) After Watson thanked Commissioner George Daniel and the crowd, Daniel told Colin Doyle to come up for the presentation of the Champion's Cup, but Doyle sent veterans Cam Woods and Kasey Beirnes up to get it. (Daniel later tweeted "Colin threw me a curve ball with that classy move...") Woods and Biernes had each played ten-plus years in the NLL with no championships, so this was indeed a classy move by Doyle, a six-time Champion. After Biernes gave Doyle the Cup, he gave it to Watson, who got the biggest ovation of all.
The Rock are now tied with the Philadelphia Wings with six championships each. But if you only consider the NLL itself (not the MILL or Eagle Pro leagues), the Rock have won three times as many championships as anyone else, since no other team has won more than two since 1998.
After the game, a bunch of us went for dinner at Fran's Restaurant. On our way back to Union Station to catch the train home, we were crossing Yonge at Front when we heard someone yelling "Yeah Rock! Wooooooooooo!" (Note that this was close to three hours after the game ended.) An SUV drove by (going south on Yonge) with the windows down – they must have seen a few of us with our Rock jerseys. I didn't see the driver, but there was a smiling man in the front seat, and another very excited man in the back seat with his head and right arm out the window who was waving at us and still yelling "Wooooooo!" We laughed and waved as Troy Cordingley (in the back) and John Lovell (in the front) continued on their way to the next victory party.
Other game notes:
- Paul Rabil was all over the floor, and did a great job killing time while the Stealth were down by two men.
- The refs stayed out of it for the most part – no really stupid penalties were called, though I think one ref made a big mistake at the end of the first quarter that could have caused a severe injury to Kyle Sorensen and may result in a suspension to Kyle Ross. I'm going to write about that in a separate posting.
- The Rock were hitting posts and crossbars all over the place. Kasey Beirnes took a shot in the second quarter that hit the right post, the left post, and Richards' back but it still managed to bounce out.
- If you recorded the game or get a chance to see it on the NLL network, go to the 11:05 mark of the second quarter (i.e. 11:05 left in the quarter). You will see Bob Watson make one of the best lacrosse saves you will ever see. As Stephen Stamp said, "He doesn’t look like a man who's half a game away from retiring."
- The Stealth were given an interesting too-many-men penalty in the first quarter. Usually "too many men" refers to a player leaving the bench just a little early and getting involved in the play before his counterpart leaves the floor. In this case, the Stealth actually had six attackers out on the floor, none of them within twenty feet of the bench. Oops. The crowd noticed this long before the refs did, and a number of people near me were yelling "too many men!" before the whistle was blown.
- The Rock have really gotten into this Air Gait thing lately. For a while they were illegal, and then the rules were changed a couple of years ago. Since then they have been fairly rare, but in the last few Rock games, there have been several attempts (many successful!) at these leaps from behind the net. There was another attempt by Colin Doyle in this game, though it was disallowed because Doyle was touching the line when he jumped. Actually, since the goal was immediately waved off and there was a review, it's more accurate to say that there was no evidence that he wasn't touching the line.
- Creighton Reid was given a goaltender interference penalty in the third, which you could describe as "two minutes for not knowing what to do when you're in the offensive zone". He took a shot which was trapped on the ground by Richards, but then he hit Richards' stick with his own. As soon as he did it, he had this look like "Oh crap, I don't think you can do that." But how often has Reid even seen the other side of the centre line? I'm sure he'll remember next time.
- Garrett Billings scored a beautiful over-the-shoulder goal near the end of the second. While standing slightly to Richards' left with his back to the goalie, he looked over his left shoulder and then fired the shot over his right.
- The attendance at the game was 14,488. I was sure I read on Twitter through the week that over 15,000 tickets had been sold, and the last time a Championship game was held in Toronto, an NLL record was set when over 19,000 showed up. From those points of view, the attendance was a little disappointing, but I think it was also the highest attended game in Toronto in several years, so that's certainly a good thing. Hopefully that carries over into next season.
- In the Rock's six championships, they have only had three Championship Game MVPs – Doyle won it three times and Whipper twice. The other winner was also in attendance – Stealth assistant coach Dan Stroup won it in 2000. Watson and Doyle are two of only three players who have won the award more than once – Philadelphia legend Dallas Eliuk won it in 1998 and 2001.
- Interesting stat: Number of League MVP awards won by Gary Gait, Paul Gait, and John Tavares combined: 10. Number of Championship Game MVP awards: 0.