The team fell apart early, then roared back twice with comebacks to make the game interesting, and made the game a nailbiter at the end. But it was the Toronto Rock who emerged victorious after this hard fought battle, and Toronto will represent the National Lacrosse League’s East in the championship game next weekend.
Buffalo got bad news right from the get go, and it seemed to affect them early on. Their heart and soul John Tavares was scratched from the game after the warmups, due to ongoing problems with the same calf muscle that sidelined him towards the end of last week’s game against Boston. Kyle Clancy was inserted into the lineup to replace Tavares.
Tavares’ absence and the player switch had a devastating effect. Toronto jumped out to a 4-0 lead by the end of the first quarter, including a power play goal coming off an “illegal equipment” call on Steve Priolo. Buffalo only mustered six shots and no real scoring threats in the first. Toronto then added two quickly in the second, and Coach Darris Kilgour pulled starting goaltender Mike Thompson in favor of Angus Goodleaf.
The switch seemed to help, as Kyle Clancy immediately got things started, receiving a perfect pass and scoring in close. Roger Vyse and Chad Culp went back to back and it was 6-3, and the mostly partisan Buffalo crowd of 12,184 was back into the game. Bandits defender Daryl Gibson then provided a momentum changer, committing the worst turnover ever from behind the Buffalo net to a waiting Colin Doyle, who buried the ball to make it 7-3.
By late in the second quarter, Buffalo had brought it to within one and were looking for the equalizer going into the dressing room. But Toronto had other ideas. Stephan Leblanc scored back to back goals in the final minute, and the Rock had a three goal cushion, 9-6, at the midway point.
Buffalo’s second half comeback would have to wait. Toronto made it bang bang in the first minute of the third to open a commanding 11-6 lead and led by four as the quarter expired. Thanks to yet another goal by Bandit-killer Garrett Billings, this one short handed, the Rock had a five goal lead as the fourth period got underway, and all seemed lost.
But the Bandits would not be deterred. Kyle Clancy scored his third of the night in close at the 4:12 mark, then Vyse added one on the power play two miutes later. Chad Culp and then Kyle Clancy yet again, brought the score to 12-11 Toronto. The crowd was on its feet, the building was electric, and one could feel a comeback in the air, just as Toronto had overcome a 6-0 deficit to win its playoff game against Buffalo just a season ago up in Toronto. “He did a great job, a great job,” said Kilgour on the play of Clancy. “Wish he could have had the last shot of the game.”
But there would be no more scoring. Buffalo had a couple of glorious opportunities in the closing minutes, and pulled their goaltender as the clock wound down. After some questionable Rock mayhem on Chad Culp, which drew no penalty, Brett Bucktooth’s shot in close skipped away into the corner, and Toronto got possession with 14 seconds to go. They arced the ball harmlessly away to then kill most of the clock, and the Rock escaped with a one goal win. As for a his take on the comeback which got away, Kilgour replied. “It wasn’t too difficult. We did it.We did it. We had two shots late which just missed, and two calls by the refs which should have been five minute high stick calls.”
Kilgour was especially animated about two referees. “It’s (Mark) Gardonio and (Matt) Robinson, two refs that we asked not have at this game and they sent them both here, pretty much home field Toronto refs they ref every game up in Toronto. You know they end up down here and blow two big calls at the end of the game.” Later on Kilgour caught himself on this issue. “I didn’t say it cost us the game, but it was two missed calls, like I said we had two open nets, (Tracey) Kelusky two open nets Bob Watson was down and out on both of them. We had opportunities to win this game it’s not all on the refs I just said they made two bad calls.”
Kyle Clancy emerged as the star of the game with four goals and two assists, this coming after he wasn’t even expecting to play. “I was sort of on the bubble before the game, but I was ready to go you got to be ready. It was bittersweet at the end. It definitely was not in the playbook for us to have to come back like that. I guess it wasn’t in the cards for us.” Clancy explained that there was a play set as the seconds ticked down at the end. “Darris gave us a play and we ran up and sort of got scrambled when they started to press us. We got two good looks at it. We practice our six on five with the goalie pulled. I guess it just didn’t want to go in for us tonight.” Roger Vyse, who also suffered from a strained calf in practice and was described by Kilgour as “50%”, added, “you don’t want to give up early leads like that. We weren’t ready to play I guess. Things happen like that in games. We had to battle back. Just one goal away…..” Vyse’s voice trailed off.
Later on in the night, the news came out of Calgary that Washington had defeated the Roughnecks to win the West and play in the NLL Championship game next Sunday. Had the Bandits pulled out the victory, Buffalo would have been the host venue for the championship game, before a national TV audience in the United States and Canada. As it turns out, that game will be played in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, the Rock and the Stealth, a rematch of the 2010 championship. For the Bandits, another chorus of “wait until next year.”
photo credit: Drew Smeltzer