The NLL is back! After seven months of NLL withdrawal, NLL fans were treated to three pre-season games on Saturday night as the teams get ready for the 2013 season. Only one of the three games actually took place in an NLL venue, as the Rochester Knighthawks held off the Minnesota Swarm 11-10 at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester. The NLL returned to the Vancouver area for the second straight year as the Calgary Roughnecks beat the Colorado Mammoth 20-11 in a high-scoring affair, while the Toronto Rock hosted the Edmonton Rush at the new Toronto Rock Athletic Centre in Oakville. This was pretty convenient for me, as the TRAC is about halfway to the ACC from where I live.
Edmonton took an early 2-0 lead before the Rock got their first goal, but 2-1 was as close as the Rock would get as the Rush led the rest of the way, winning 12-8. Considering this was the first game of the pre-season, both teams played pretty well with a few missed or dropped passes but no obvious signs of rust. None of the goalies were spectacular but all played well. The Rush defense, unsurprisingly, was the star of the game, frustrating the Rock offense by not letting them get good looks. Blaine Manning looked really good, and Josh Sanderson got back on defense a couple of times, which surprisingly did not make me cringe. If there’s one thing that future Hall of Fame lock Sanderson is not known for, it’s his defense but he seemed to be playing with a new intensity – and even got a penalty while he and Leblanc were preventing an attempted incursion into Rock territory. Great to see.
This game was the NLL debut of Edmonton’s first-overall draft pick Mark Matthews, and he certainly did not disappoint. I don’t have any stats on the game, but Matthews picked up at least three goals and a few assists as well. Matthews looked comfortable on the floor, and seemed poised to take control of the Edmonton offense, similar to the way Cody Jamieson did with the Knighthawks a couple of years ago. The Rock were without many of their big offensive players, with Colin Doyle, Garrett Billings, Dan Carey, Kasey Biernes, and Phil Sanderson all sitting out. There were a bunch of new names (Belton, Andrews, Caravello, Ivey) as well, though a couple of notable absences were draft pick Bradley Kri and the newest Rock Scott Evans. As is frequently done in the pre-season, some of the Rock players only played the first half (Nick Inch, Cam Woods, Chris White) while others only played the second (Damon Edwards, Stephen Hoar), and both teams swapped goalies a couple of times.
Aaron Bold started against Nick Rose – at least I’m pretty sure it was Bold; Edmonton must have forgotten their Twitter handle jerseys at home and played with practice jerseys with no names. Edmonton brought out Brodie MacDonald (who didn’t even get a practice jersey – his was just plain gray with no number or logo or anything) to start the 3rd quarter while the Rock countered with rookie Zac Boychuk. Rose came back in the fourth, and another rookie, Dave Marrese, finished the game for the Rush.
Part of the reason for these pre-season games is to give the rookies time to show their skills, and both Kyle Belton and Dustin Caravello took full advantage of this. I wouldn’t be surprised if Caravello played more minutes than Leblanc. I was pretty impressed with both but especially Belton, who looked like a Josh Sanderson-type “floor general”, controlling the offense and setting up plays. Caravello, on the other hand, was more of a Kasey Biernes type, sneaking around (or through) the defense to get shots from in close. I’m pretty sure Stephan Leblanc did not score, though I think he had an assist or two. I wouldn’t say he looked lost, but I didn’t see the improvement in play that I was hoping for. He seemed to have a lack of confidence last year, and I saw that again here.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the venue itself. This was my first visit to the Toronto Rock Athletic Centre, and it was pretty impressive. There are two rinks, one with turf and one without. The turf one has bench seating for about 700 along one side, similar to your local hockey rink. There are also offices upstairs. Make no mistake though, this is not a hockey arena where you can play lacrosse once the ice is removed – I confirmed (with a security guard who seemed to know what he was talking about) that there is no ice-making equipment – this is a lacrosse facility.
Other game notes:
- It was very cool to see Bob Watson at the game. I heard some guys a couple of rows behind me talking shortly after Whipper walked by, and one said “I will always have time for Bob Watson. As good a goalie as Watson was, he was a better person.” I have never met the man personally, but this is consistent with everything I’ve ever heard about him.
- My son and I were sitting right next to the Edmonton dressing room – you can see us during Derek Keenan’s interview before the game. My son (green baseball cap) waves at the camera. I noticed Chris Corbeil standing around before the game while the rest of the team was practicing, but it wasn’t until much later that I noticed the cast on his right foot. No idea how serious his injury is.
- Watching the Calgary-Colorado game, there were five or six “illegal equipment” calls because of loose chin straps. This is apparently something they’re going to be calling more this season, but obviously nobody told the refs at the Toronto-Edmonton game. Edmonton players lost their helmets at least three times.
They also did stick checks during the second quarter, and I believe Jeremy Thompson was caught. The ref handed his stick to a Rush trainer, and then signaled to either Thompson or Derek Keenan that there was a problem, though this was on the other side of the floor so I couldn’t tell what he was saying. Thompson immediately left the bench, ran to the dressing room, and returned a minute later with a new stick. There was no penalty assessed.
- The first goal of the night was scored by Edmonton, but announced as “Jesse Gamble from Mike Hobbins and Brendan Thenhaus” all of whom are Rock players. Someone was looking at the wrong list. The rest of the goals were fine, but there was no correction on the first one.
- Phil Sanderson, Garrett Billings, and Colin Doyle were up in the “owner’s box” with Jamie Dawick, except for halftime when Billings and Sanderson were on the floor taking shots. Terry Sanderson, usually behind the bench, was also up in the box.
- Overheard: “The Rock goalie, what’s his name? Pete Rose?”
- While Brodie MacDonald was in net, someone near me was yelling “five hole!” every time the Rock had the ball in the offensive zone. Sure enough, MacDonald’s five hole was half the net. But I guess that’s what happens when you’re 6’7″.
- One lesson I learned from this game is not to tweet updates constantly on my phone. More than once I was tweeting about one goal only to miss the next one. If I had had my laptop with me it would have been easier, but I feel that I missed half the game because I was tweeting about the other half.