May 8, 2011

Rock Prevails in Bizarre East Division Final

by Neil Stevens |

Toronto Rock captain Colin Doyle will play in the eighth NLL Champion's Cup final of his career next week following Saturday's 12-11 victory at Buffalo in the East Division final.

© Rich Barnes

* Slow-Starting Stealth Find Way Back to Final

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It was a strange night of lacrosse that began with Bandits star John Tavares being dropped from the lineup at the last minute and ended with Toronto goalie Bob Watson needing to make a save in the waning seconds to preserve a 12-11 Rock victory.

In between, Kyle Clancy, the guy with the pen stroke through his name on the lineup sheet distributed before the game Saturday night, wound up leading the Bandits with four goals after unexpectedly taking the place of Tavares, Bandits goalie Mike Thompson, who was Mr. Reliable all season, was replaced after they fell behind 6-0 early in the second quarter on Toronto's 22nd shot on goal, and a Toronto player who rarely takes a shot came through with a huge goal.

With the NLL East Division final having been decided by just one goal, the offensive contribution of stay-at-home defenseman Phil Sanderson can only be described as enormous. Sanderson hadn't scored a playoff goal since 2005, the last time Toronto won the Champion's Cup, and this was his 11th playoff game since the last time the Rock won it all.

''My dog collar came off, the alarm was going off and I saw an opening and took it,'' Sanderson said when asked afterwards what he was doing at Buffalo's end of the floor. ''It was big and good and we needed it.''

Now, with Washington knocking off No. 1 overall seed Calgary 10-8 in the West Division final in Calgary, this year's title game will be played at 2 p.m. Eastern next Sunday in Toronto's Air Canada Centre. It will be a rematch of the 2010 final, won by the Stealth at home.

''We're a hungry group,'' Sanderson said. ''After we lost last year, our only goal was to get back to the championship game and win. We're back with a shot to win so here we go.''

And Watson's bid to go out a winner remains alive. The 41-year-old Toronto goalie, who said during the winter this is his last kick at the can and who reiterated late in the regular season his intention to follow through on his retirement plan, couldn't be happier he'll be going for the sixth NLL crown of his career at home in his final pro appearance.

''We came together for each other,'' Watson said. ''We didn't want it to end here. ''We've got a chance to do it now. It's a reality. It all boils down to 60 minutes of lacrosse, and hopefully we'll bring our 'A' game.''

Their "A" game was missing during two Buffalo rallies, one from the 6-0 deficit and another from an 11-6 hole the Bandits found themselves in after Sanderson and Garrett Billings scored in the second half's opening minute.

The Bandits scored the game's last four goals, and Watson stopped a low Brett Bucktooth shot with his stick with the crowd on its feet begging for overtime.

''We managed to hang on,'' said a relieved Watson.

Billings and Stephan Leblanc led Toronto with three goals each and Sanderson, Colin Doyle, Rob Hellyer, Rob Marshall, Stephen Hoar and Kasey Beirnes got one each.

Billings got credit for the winning goal, which he scored 41 seconds into the fourth quarter while helping kill a penalty. It was Toronto's only goal of the quarter.

''It was a hell of a game on both teams' parts and, thankfully, we were able to put one more in the net than them,'' Leblanc said. ''It was nerve-wracking and they were in front of their home crowd, so they had the seventh man on the floor. But you know what? Our 'D' played excellent all game long and Bob Watson had the game of his life. Good things happen for us when those two things combine.''

The absence of Tavares stalled the Buffalo attack in the early going.

The decision to sit pro lacrosse's all-time leading scorer was made 10 minutes before the start time.

''I couldn't have two guys [at 50 percent] going into the game, and Johnny was a bit worse off than Roger, so we had to go with Rog,'' Kilgour explained. ''[Kyle] did a great job. Wish he could have had the last shot of the game.''

''Obviously we caught a break with JT not being able to go tonight,'' said Rock coach Troy Cordingley. ''But I think our guys get full credit. It's a tough barn to come into and win in, and we were full value.''

Trying to get Watson another championship game appearance has been an incentive to his teammates.

''That's in the back of the guys' minds,'' Cordingley said. ''He's been such an unbelievable team guy, and he's been successful because he's such a great guy. He was real good for us tonight. He made some huge saves. He's earned his way.''

Goals from defensemen Sanderson, Hoar and Marshall were decisive.

''It's great to get the win,'' Hoar said. ''The boys played well, our offense came through big time when Buffalo went on its runs, and Whipper shut the door. He made two or three circus saves on shots that could have put them right back in the game. We did just enough to win. So, on to play [Washington]. Can't wait.''

Doyle, the Rock captain, and Watson will play in the eighth title game of their careers. They were on five championship Rock teams between 1999 and 2005.

''This is a tough league to pull away in,'' a drained Doyle said as he relished the one-goal win. ''We did ourselves a favor getting off to a good start, and we found a way to grind it out. It wasn't going to be easy, whether we got a big start or had to come from behind. She was tense at the end, but I'm proud that we gave an honest 60 minutes.''

The championship celebration of six years ago seems like ancient history now, he said.

''It's been a long time since we've been able to hoist that trophy,'' he said. ''Getting there isn't good enough this year, simple as that.''

Toronto went to the West Coast and, after taking a lead into the fourth quarter, lost 15-11 to Washington in the Champion's Cup game a year ago.

''We're back in the championship game,'' said defenseman Sandy Chapman. ''After last year and the way we lost, it's great to get another opportunity. We know we'll have to play a full 60 minutes to win. It's just exciting to get back there, and it'll be exciting to get to practice on Tuesday.''

There'll be no more practices for the Bandits.

Coach Darris Kilgour said he was going to use Tavares until Roger Vyse pulled a calf muscle in the pre-game warmup. The decision to sit pro lacrosse's all-time leading scorer was made 10 minutes before the start time.

''I couldn't have two guys [at 50 percent] going into the game, and Johnny was a bit worse off than Roger, so we had to go with Rog,'' Kilgour explained. ''[Kyle] did a great job. Wish he could have had the last shot of the game.''

Vyse came through with three goals, Chad Culp two and Clay Hill and Tracey Kelusky one each in front of an announced HSBC Arena crowd of 12,184.

Lifting Thompson at 2:12 of the second quarter and going with backup Angus Goodleaf was a tough decision to make.

''We weren't playing well in front of him and I had to shake the team up,'' Kilgour said. ''It seemed to wake them up a little bit. But he was the backbone of this team all year long, and I just feel sorry we put him in the tough spot that we did.''

Kilgour was incensed that Toronto went unpunished for what he considered to be infractions in the closing minutes.

''I thought the refs blew two calls at the end, maybe five-minute high stick calls,'' he said. ''But it's [Mark] Gardonio and [Matt] Robinson, two refs that we asked not to have at this game and they send them both here.

''They're pretty much home-field Toronto refs. They ref every game up in Toronto and they end up down here and they blow two big calls at the end of the game.''

He stopped short of blaming them for the loss.

''I didn't say they cost us the game,'' he said.

His own players' missed opportunities will give Kilgour nightmares.

''Tracey Kelusky missed two open nets with Bob Watson down and out, and he missed the net on both of them,'' Kilgour said. ''We had our opportunities to get back in the game and we did get back in the game. It's not all on the refs. I just said they missed two calls.

''[Missed opportunities] were the story of our season. We just couldn't get 60 minutes out of all three phases of the game working together. It was very frustrating. But I'm very proud of this team. We battled all year long. We weren't picked very high at the beginning of the season. We had two bad games at the end of the season, but we turned that around, and we had our chances tonight. But Toronto shot better than us and was a little bit better of a team.''

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