Toronto Rock need to find their way down NLL stretch without Billings, plus the links

Toronto's Garrett Billings went down with a knee injury on this play Saturday against Vancouver. (Photo: Dan Brodie)
Toronto's Garrett Billings went down with a knee injury on this play Saturday against Vancouver. (Photo: Dan Brodie)

The Toronto Rock’s win on Saturday night was big in the sense that it corrected the struggles of a team that’s pushing for a National Lacrosse League playoff berth. But the team lost an important part of its core when forward Garrett Billings went down for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee. Moments before Billings went down with the injury, the Rock were celebrating his accomplishment of clearing the 100-point plateau for a third straight season, the only player in NLL history to do so. But today, the Rock are looking at their 1-game lead over Philadelphia in the East Division standings for the third and final playoff spot, and coming up with a plan on how to maintain that without their most dynamic playmaker. “You don’t replace a player like that,” coach John Lovell told NLL.com. “It’s devastating to us because of his ability and I feel sorry for the guy because he’s one of the best, if not the best player in this league. It’s a shame that it happened.”

And considering the aforementioned slim margin over the Wings, the hill before the Rock is daunting. At 6-9, the Rock won for just the second time in 7 games. Philadelphia’s loss on Friday to Calgary kept the Wings (5-10) from pulling closer, but that hardly means anything is finalized.

That’s because the Wings visit Toronto on Saturday night in what’s turned into the must-see game of the week. The teams have split games so far this season, so Saturday’s game decides the tiebreaker for the season series. Toronto won the first meeting, 20-10, but a rejuvenated Wings team surprised Toronto with a 14-13 win just 3 weeks ago.

How the Rock respond without the production and leadership of Billings remains to be seen. It’s one thing to replace stats, quite another to replace presence and Billings has both. Toronto has 2 defensemen and a goalie on the practice squad, so the Rock can’t really look there and that’s unfortunate because depth on the right side of the offense, at least on paper, isn’t a strength.

Rookie transition man Ethan O’Connor is a righty and has the ability to finish, so maybe the Rock will ask more of him. They’ll certainly be asking for more from Rob Hellyer and Kasey Beirnes, the only other right-handed forwards on the roster.

Can it be done? Of course it can. It all depends on which Rock mentality emerges. There have been games where the Rock looked to be legit challengers for the Champion’s Cup and then there are games where the Rock, well, do not. Inconsistency has plagued the Rock this winter and a lot of that has had to do with instability in the back end because of injuries.

Now the Rock have an injury to face in the front end and more than ever, they’re facing a genuine gut check as they look to keep their season afloat.

plus the links

It wasn’t very good from the get-go for the Vancouver Stealth on Saturday night. They trailed 6-2 at the end of the first, 11-4 at halftime and never got closer than 13-7 in the 17-9 loss. “We battled back a bit after the slow start, but then we fell asleep again,” said captain Kyle Sorensen. (Vancouver Stealth) … Angus Goodleaf got his first career start on Saturday night, against the team that drafted, then cut him. He made 42 saves in Rochester’s 12-9 win over the Minnesota Swarm. “It’s always nice getting a start, and against them made it a little nicer. It feels good to know that the coaches have confidence in me,” he said. (Democrat and Chronicle) … Following the weekend sweep by Rochester, the Swarm are a full 3 games in back of the third and final playoff position for the East Division. But if there’s reason for optimism, it’s that all 3 of Minnesota’s remaining games are at home. “We need to win and get some momentum–for chemistry, for next year, maybe for our own pride. I would love to finish on a high note and get three wins, at the very least for our fans,” said forward Callum Crawford. (Minnesota Swarm) … It was right there for the Colorado Mammoth, who trailed the unbeaten Edmonton Rush by just 2 goals at the start of the second half. But the Rush scored 4 goals in 1:36 for an 11-7 lead before the Mammoth woke up. And the Mammoth were able to pull within 1 goal but ran out of clock in Saturday’s 12-11 loss to Edmonton. “We just had that little lapse in the third quarter and that’s the tough part of this game. The lapse was the difference,” said Mammoth coach Dan Stroup. (Edmonton Sun) … The Buffalo Bandits have lost 4 straight after an 8-2 start and they could only watch in horror as Calgary used a 6-0 run in the fourth quarter to turn Buffalo’s 12-10 lead into a 15-12 lead in what ended up being a 16-13 win for the Riggers. “We’ve got to go back to the hunger. In training camp, guys were scared. They didn’t know if they’d make the team or not, so they battled. All of a sudden after our game against Colorado, we’ve basically mailed it in for the last couple of games,” said coach Troy Cordingley. (Buffalo News) … Saturday’s win in Buffalo was just a cap to a great weekend for the Roughnecks, who also won Friday night in Philadelphia. “I grew up as a lacrosse player battling against the East and they’re warriors; you get nothing for free. That’s what makes it so special … we secured a playoff spot (last night) and now we got a home playoff date,” said coach Curt Malawsky. (NLL.com).

Chavez is an avid lacrosse player in Rochester and a journalist for the Democrat and Chronicle as well as a longtime Inside Lacrosse contributor. Email him at bob.chavez@nllinsider.com or go to RochesterSports.com.

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