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Tuned Up: Rock Turn Down Black Wolves, 15-12

The Toronto Rock (13-4) got step closer to acquiring a first-place finish in the East Division and overall NLL standings after defeating the New England Black Wolves (4-10) by a score of 15-12 before a crowd of 9,271 at Air Canada Centre on Friday night.

Toronto goalie Brandon Miller turned away a staggering 58 shots on 70 attempts to help lift the Rock past its East Division counterpart, increasing the Rock’s odds for first place overall at season’s end.

“I just tried to get back to my game a little bit,” said Miller, acknowledging what he identifies as recent struggles. “I just wanted to get back to straight-up playing.

“It’s a win nonetheless, we can’t have any hiccups if we want first place,” added Miller.

The 11-10 Rochester loss to the Colorado Mammoth late Friday night provided a much less complicated image in the 2015 playoff oracle. With the Knighthawks suffering a fifth loss, Toronto now just needs to win their final game in Connecticut on May 1 to solidify top spot.

Toronto’s Brett Hickey opened all scoring by netting his 44th goal of the year on the powerplay 3:30 after first whistle. Solid transition from the Black Wolves allowed forwards Jamie Lincoln and Brett Bucktooth to each score nearly a minute apart to make it 2-1 New England half way through the first frame. To cap the quarter, Brock Sorensen and Hickey each scored short-handed goals on the same penalty kill, putting Toronto back on top 3-2.

Rock captain Josh Sanderson scored a powerplay tally early in the second, but New England forwards Pat Saunders and Kyle Buchanan each found the back of the net, knotting the game at four goals a piece at the 7:23 mark of the second quarter. Following nearly six minutes of scoreless play, Brodie Merrill closed the half by scoring Toronto’s third of four short-handed goals in the game.

“We got penalty killing tonight,” said Rock head coach John Lovell. “Short handed goals aside, I thought we did a good job blocking shots and getting in lanes.”

Beyond a productive penalty kill, the Rock found life again on the powerplay as the modest (of late) man-advantage unit went six for six on the evening. Over five games previous to Friday night, Toronto had only been successful seven times on 24 total powerplay attempts.

The third quarter featured eight total goals between the two teams. Saunders opened the half with a powerplay goal to knot the score at five goals a piece. The Rock then followed up by scoring four-straight goals over a 6:02 span to garner a 9-5 advantage. Over the frame’s final 5:15, both Kyle and Kevin Buchanan scored for the Blackwolves ahead of Kevin Ross’ first and of two tallies of the game.

With just seconds remaining in the third quarter, New England assistant captain Andrew Suitor bumped into Kevin Crowley and fell to the floor immediately. Suitor was eventually carried off the floor after suffering an apparent knee injury. Suitor confirmed following the game that it was indeed a left knee injury. According to Black Wolves head coach Blane Harrison, Suitor will be given an MRI and reevaluated as soon as possible.

“The good news is it doesn’t feel as bad as my other knee did a year and a half ago,” said Suitor, who was standing under his own power in the locker room. “I’m just going to have to wait and see what the doctor says. You play the game because you love it and believe me, I’ve watched enough games over the last couple of years.”

A busy fourth frame included five goals a side. A late 4-2 New England run shrunk the Rock’s lead to 15-12 with 1:41 remaining in the game, but the effort proved too little too late.

“I thought we were right there [tonight],” said Harrison. “We had a powerplay with a couple of new guys on it and didn’t score a whole lot and they gave up three goals, that was a big part of the game.”

Former Rock all-pro Garrett Billings made his first trip back to Air Canada Centre since being dealt on deadline day in exchange for Crowley. The six-year veteran had five points in his return and played big minutes along side his new teammates. Billings got involved early by making a number of stealthy passes through Rock defenders.

“I thought our offense played pretty well, I thought we generated a lot of good chances,” said Billings. “I think Brandon Miller is probably the story of the game, he kept us out of it.”

Billings, after playing nearly 40 games at the Air Canada Centre as a member of the home team, stood on the Toronto floor as a visitor for the first time in his career. The multi 100-point man wore number 19 in a uniform bearing the color orange, a stark change from the six years he wore number 13 in blue, red and white.

“It’s been such a weird season watching the Rock have early success and not be a part of that,” said Billings. “Obviously I got traded, but I would’ve been happy to stay in Toronto for a long time. But it’s a new chapter here in New England and I’m happy to be where I am.”

Ahead of Friday night’s game, Toronto was graced with the positive news that their captain Colin Doyle was moved to the active roster well ahead schedule. Despite practicing on Tuesday and participating in the pre-game warmup, Doyle was listed as a scratch, pushing his return to the lineup back a couple of weeks.

“The doctor I guess said no,” said Lovell. And I think Rob Hellyer could have played to if push came to shove, but we’ll give them two more weeks and see what happens.”

The Rock’s Miller got the start in goal and played spectacular. His 58 save performance came a week following a long seat on the bench against the Vancouver Stealth, a game in which alternate goalie Nick Rose played admirably. Miller finished the night with a .828 save percentage en route to his seventh win of the season.

Black Wolves goalie Evan Kirk got the nod in the opposing goal and allowed 15 goals on 42 shots for a .642 save percentage.

Hickey (3+5) led all shooters with eight points on the night. Stephan Leblanc (1+6) followed up with seven points of his own. Billings (1+4), Saunders (3+2) and Brett Bucktooth (2+3) each scored five points in the loss, while Kyle Buchanan (2+2) followed up with four.

Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:

1) Brandon Miller
2) Brett Hickey
3) Stephan Leblanc

By Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) for NLL.com. Photo by Graig Abel.