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Off To The Races: Rock Vs. Black Wolves

The Toronto Rock (12-4) might be welcoming legendary captain Colin Doyle back into the lineup as the team’s trek toward a first-place finish in the East Division continues on Friday against the New England Black Wolves (4-9), who are fighting to stay in the playoff race, at Air Canada Centre at 7:30 p.m. ET. Watch on NLL LIVE in the U.S. and TSN GO in Canada.

According to TorontoRock.com, the long-time Rock forward Doyle was added to the active roster on Wednesday afternoon, marking Friday night as potentially his first game since the 2014 playoff loss to Buffalo on May 3.

“He looked very good in practice last night [Tuesday], he took full contact,” said Rock head coach John Lovell.

The Doyle injury, suffered during the offseason, looked sure to leave a gapping hole in the Toronto offence, but the Rock persevered and found compensation with the successes of Rob Hellyer (86 points) and Brett Hickey (41 goals) this season. But that solace was partly taken away on March 21 when Hellyer fell to injury against the Edmonton Rush. It was a sudden exit of 86 points from the Rock lineup.

Cue the acquisition of Kevin Crowley ahead of the trade deadline. The deal sent league all-star and multi 100-point man Garrett Billings to New England in the blockbuster one-for-one trade.  For two weeks, Toronto carried a conventional six-man offense including Stephan Leblanc, Kasey Beirnes, Kevin Ross, Josh Sanderson, Crowley and Hickey. As Doyle prepares to make his long-awaited return, the Rock are faced with the decision of whether or not to carry seven guys on the offensive front. Doing so would leave just nine guys on the backend, an unconventional lineup approach not at all explored by Toronto this season.

“If that’s what we end up doing, we can do it,” said Rock owner and general manager Jamie Dawick after last Friday night’s win over the Stealth. “We’re typically a six [forwards] and 10 [defenders] team, so I imagine we’ll go seven and nine for a least a game.”

Whatever the case may be on Friday, Toronto’s only focus will be a potential first place finish and the obstacle standing in the way – in this case the floundering New England Blackwolves. The Rock are in the midst of a trench war with the Edmonton Rush (10-5) and the Rochester Knighthawks (10-4) for that first place overall spot, a position which awards the holder with a first-round post-season bye and home floor advantage throughout the playoffs.

“Mathematically, we still have a chance to get first place…so we just got to take care of business ourselves,” said Lovell. “We’re expecting a tough game because New England is fighting for similar things, they are trying to get into the playoffs.”

While there are a number of possible scenarios to which a first place position could be earned, Toronto’s best chance is to win their last two remaining games (both against New England) to give them a 14-4 regular season record. If done, the Rock would fend of a surging Edmonton Rush team who cannot finish better than 13 wins. Rochester however, could still leap-frog the Rock as the they hold the tiebreaker should the two teams finish with identical 14-4 records.

Lovell preaches the mantra of self-awareness and nothing else ahead of the final steps of battle. The second-year coach looks only within the confines to which the Rock can control. The Rock’s successes this season can be attributed to a well-balanced lacrosse game, a good offense (12.8 goals per game), a better defense (10.37 goals against average) and nearly the league’s best goaltending (third at a combined .790 save percentage).

A big pat on the back has to go to coach Lovell, who has successfully managed a two-goalie system in Toronto. Perhaps not by design (Miller started the Rock’s first three games), Miller and Rose have shared the load almost equally over the second half of the season. Sharing identical 6-2 records thus far, Rock and Miller each have turned away 250 shots this year.

“It’s been different for me, but it’s something that most teams don’t have the luxury of. It’s something new and it’s something quite advantageous,” said Rock goalie Brandon Miller. “The two goalie system is probably a good reason why we’ve been so successful.”

For the Black Wolves, the team hopes to use the game as a springboard in their push for the playoffs. In the team’s previous game against the Rock on February 20, the Black Wolves lost 13-12 in overtime. With their postseason hopes slowly fading, the pack will look to bounce back from a tough loss to the Stealth and get a much needed win against the Rock.

“It is a disappointing loss,” said Black Wolves head coach Blane Harrison. “Last weekend, we thought we were good enough to win that game. Other than face offs, we loose-balled them, we outshot them, and we got good quality shots. Unfortunately, we couldn’t finish and that was the determining factor in the game. Otherwise, it was a game that I thought we played well enough to win, but we didn’t and that’s the bottom line. The final score is the only metric that matters.”

During their Week 8 matchup, the Black Wolves outshot the Rock by almost ten shots on goal, and picked up 77 loose-balls. The production continued in face-offs, with the pack taking 21 of the 29 face-offs in the game. However, the Black Wolves’ defense could not hold up, allowing the Rock to score 5 goals in the fourth quarter tying the score at 12.

“That was a solid game for us,” Harrison said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t hold onto a lead and we let it get away from us in overtime. We’ll look at the lineup; there are a couple of things we’ve got to tweak up. I did like the shot production. I think Brett Hull once said that he doesn’t care if he scores, just as long as his chances are there he’ll shoot his way out of it. I feel the same way here.”

“We’ve got to continue to generate our chances. Start burying them. Shoot our way out of our offensive slump, and then have our defense hold serve. Then we’ll give ourselves a pretty good chance to be competitive,” added Harrison.

A player that has started to generate more shots for the Black Wolves since his debut is rookie forward Mark Cockerton. Cockerton averages about 6.5 shots on goal per game, hitting the back of the net at least once each game. He also averages about 2 assists a game, helping his teammates to get more shot opportunities. Though he started the 2015 season late due to an injury, Cockerton continues to work on improving in all aspects of the game.

“I just feel like I’m trying to get better each week,” Cockerton said. “At the beginning of the year, I was playing a lot of field lacrosse, just trying to get in the mode of box lacrosse again. I feel like every week in practice, I’m trying to go as hard as I can, and just trying to get better each and every practice. Really come back into the fold of box lacrosse and finishing.”

“The speed of the game is a lot different, but I’ve made a lot of progress. The coaches do a great job and I’ve been following them a lot. I really like to play with Garrett Billings; he really opens it up for the lefties. He’s faster and I feel like that’s going to help me out a lot too,” noted Cockerton.

The Black Wolves are fighting to earn the third and final playoff spot in the East Division and the real battle comes in their final games of the season. Each opponent in their next matchups are East teams, and with the pack’s dreams of the postseason dangling by a thread, they will need to win out in order to guarantee themselves a playoff spot. It all starts with their Friday night rematch in Toronto.

“We do have five games left, and mathematically we’re still in it,” Harrison said. “It can be, in totality, a pretty daunting challenge. We’re going to have to go into these next five games playing one shift at a time, and give our best effort to give ourselves a chance.”

“We have five games left, and mathematically we have got to win them all,” added Cockerton. “We’re still in it, we play Buffalo two more times, so if we can get those wins we’re right there, we’re right back in it. We have a big one this weekend at Toronto, against the number one team in the league right now. We’ve got to come to play and get that win first and foremost and move on from there.”

By Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) and Alyssa McLaughlin (@BlackWolvesBeat) for NLL.com. Photo by Graig Abel.