|Colin Doyle celebrates the game winning goal in playoff action between the Toronto Rock and the Buffalo Bandits. (Dave Abel/QMI AGENCY)
A tumultuous season that saw the Toronto Rock start on a 6-1 hot streak before losing a chilling five-in–a-row will come to a head Saturday night as the club takes on the upstart Washington Stealth.
The Rock, who are five seasons removed from their five-championships-in-seven-years dynasty is hoping that they can find their way back to the top. With an intriguing mix of familiar faces, like Colin Doyle, who remember what it’s like to win, and younger players who are just making their mark in the league, the team brings an interesting mix of styles to the floor.
“They play the game totally different than we do and they’re exciting to play with. They have been such an integral part and they keep it fresh,” Doyle said of the youngsters. “Those guys bring a lot of skill and a lot of youth and athleticism to the table, and we’ll try to bring whatever is left, so some veteran leadership and veteran savvy.”
Quite a bit of that veteran savvy will come from the Rock’s 40-year-old goaltender, Bob “Whipper” Watson, who has recovered from his second worst NLL season in 2009 to put up some of the best numbers of his career this year.
Watson, who has been with the club since 1999, appreciates the chemistry on his team, but is hesitant to compare them to the championship teams of the past.
“We’re similar in our drives and know what we want to accomplish,” Watson explained. “But this team, the work ethic is unbelievable; they’ve just put their nose to the grindstone. To come off the quick start that we did and then to go through a little bit of adversity… but nobody got down on each other and we stayed positive.
“We didn’t have to experience that in the years past and that’s what makes this team different – we stuck together and we are where we are because we stayed strong and stayed the course.”
The Stealth, however, aren’t a team the Rock are going to take lightly. The club, who just moved to Washington from San Jose, finished the season with an 11-5 record and have amassed nearly identical stats as the Rock during the postseason.
“Both teams don’t know a whole lot about each other - there's obviously going to be a bit of a feeling out process – but we know that they're a really strong offensive team and put up big numbers,” Watson said of the Stealth. “They’re the best in the west, so we’re up against a really tough opponent and we have to go in expecting that, and expecting to play our game and just see what happens.”
Regardless of the outcome of Saturdays’ game, the Rock have at least one piece of hardware to show for their season.
On Wednesday, Rock rookie Stephan LeBlanc was awarded NLL Rookie of the Year honours, becoming the third Toronto player to win the award since they joined the league in 1999. And while the 24-year-old student is looking forward to the opportunity to play his first championship game, he isn’t under the impression that it will be a romp for Toronto.
“I think it’s going to come down to a couple lucky blocked shots, maybe some transition goals and a little bit of luck,” LeBlanc laughed.
But his personal award isn’t going to affect the amount of pressure LeBlanc feels will be put on him or, more importantly, he will be putting on himself.
“We talk about pressure as something you have to do outside of your realm,” he explained. “As far as the team goes we don’t have to do anything we don’t feel that we’re not capable of, I don’t feel that my coaches are asking me to do anything different than I’ve done all year.
“I’m going to approach this game as any other and work as hard as I can.”
Doyle, who was a part of all five championship teams and has earned the Champions Cup MVP award three times in his career, has taken on a new role with the club – that of a captain. A title he says hasn’t altered the way he is approaching the game in Washington.
“I kind of do things my own way and that’s the way I believe I’ve done it my whole career,” the energetic forward said. “It’s going to be great to be able to lead this team into the championship.”