When it comes to lacrosse passing, some of the best to ever play the game will be in action this Saturday when the Toronto Rock face off against the Rochester Knighthawks at the Air Canada Centre in a game that can be seen on ESPN3 and TSN at 7pm ET. And that’s not based on mere opinion—the players holding 10 of the 11 top single-season National Lacrosse League assist totals will be taking part in the game. Josh Sanderson holds four of the top seasons and his Toronto teammates Colin Doyle and Garrett Billings hold a pair each, including Billings’ record 82 assists from 2012. Dan Dawson represents the Knighthawks with a pair of seasons in the top 11, although he had the third- and fourth-highest season totals with Philadelphia and Boston, respectively.
Billings sits second in the league right now to the only other man who has produced a top-11 season, Shawn Evans of the Calgary Roughnecks. The Rock star says both Toronto and Rochester have very efficient offences and gives a lot of the credit to the lefties Doyle and Sanderson for his club’s success on O. “The ball really moves ridiculously well,” Billings says. “It’s pretty hard for a defence to come up with a game plan for that.”
One of the keys for anyone to be a successful passer, Billings adds, is to make sure you’re not just a passer. “I think the main thing, and I’ve got to remind myself of it constantly, is you’ve got to be as much of a scoring threat as a passing threat. If you just kind of sit back and be comfortable with racking up a few assists you’re not really helping the team as much as you could.”
What that means, Billings says, is that you have to go into each shift with the mentality that if your shot is there, you’re going to take it. “Every situation that you’re in in the game is unique. I think that every situation that you’re out there, no matter what’s happened in the past or what you think is going to happen, you’ve got to out there looking like you’re taking the ball to the net and if you tip your hand that you’re going to pass first the other team will react to that and you’re not going to be successful.”
Both teams have had success beyond racking up assists lately, of course: between them they’ve won the last three Champions Cups. That has only intensified their long-time rivalry. Billings says the Knighthawks have had the better of that rivalry lately, and he and his teammates are none too pleased about it. “This matchup with Rochester recently has swung in their favour. They’ve had a lot of success the last two years and we’ve been the victim of that. We’ve got to turn it around and this weekend is a huge opportunity.”
The game this weekend takes on an even bigger import because of this year’s new format that sees only three teams in each division reach the playoffs, rather than eight of the league’s nine teams making the post-season as it was before. “That’s one of my favourite parts about the way the schedule change this year and cutting down a couple of playoff teams, is that every game matters,” says Billings, who didn’t like the old format where regular season games just didn’t carry the same weight. “Right now if you’re not playing, like we haven’t been playing, all that well early in the season, you’re going to pay for it. We know what’s on the line right now.”
The Rock sit at 4-6, three games behind the 7-3 Knighthawks and just 1.5 games ahead of the fourth-place Philadelphia Wings, who play the Knighthawks Sunday afternoon. So they know how important winning Saturday night is. The Knighthawks aren’t complacent where they are, though, as Rochester forward Joe Walters points out. “We’ve had some recent success there, but it’s a tough game,” Walters says. “They’re a team that, if they get that win, they’re right back in the hunt. It’s almost like playoff lacrosse right now, where every game’s important.”
Getting up for the game is no problem for the Rochester players, many of whom are from the Toronto area or nearby. “It’s a great place to play. The crowd there is awesome. I think the guys get a little extra fired up with family there,” says Walters, who is a Rochester native.
The Knighthawks focus, though, isn’t on the Rock but on their own game. “Every time we’re together, we try to get better. I think we’ve been doing that the last couple of weeks and we’re going to try to keep building,” Walters says. “We haven’t played a full 60. There’s been lapses in each game where we’ve been flat. So we need to address that. We’re halfway through the season. If we can just keep getting better and work to stop those lapses we should be pretty solid.”
To that end, Walters says his team focuses on taking the game five minutes at a time, not looking at the bigger picture. “We try not to look ahead, I guess. We want to stay focused on the now. We want to win each five minutes of the game. If you do that, you’re going to win the game. It’s just important to keep the game in segments. That comes from our coaches and it comes from our captain, [Sid Smith].”
Make sure to check out the latest instalment in the Toronto-Rochester rivalry on TSN and ESPN3 Saturday at 7pm ET, and come back regularly to IL Indoor for all the best of indoor lacrosse coverage.Stamp is a TV sports announcer and lacrosse lover whose skill set made him a defender but who always dreamed of being a goal-scorer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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