Bring on the Buffalo Bandits.
The Toronto Rock will meet its greatest rival next Saturday with a spot in the National Lacrosse League’s championship game on the line thanks to a 10-8 victory over another longtime foe, the Rochester Knighthawks at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday afternoon.
In what might have been Rock goalie Bob Watson’s final appearance in front of his home fans, he did something he hadn’t done before in a pro career that started way back in 1996 — hold an opponent off the board for over 30 minutes.
Watson — who is set to retire and will only play again at the ACC if Toronto tops Buffalo and Calgary loses to the Washington Stealth next week setting up a championship game rematch with the 2010 champs — shut down Rochester for an incredible 30 minutes and 10 seconds as the Rock erased an early 3-1 Knighthawks lead.
“He gave us what we expect this time of year. It is such a luxury to have (him) on your back because you know that’s what you’re going to get when you need it the most,” Rock captain Colin Doyle — who led the way with three goals and three assists — said of Watson.
Squared at three after a quarter, the Rock turned up the pressure, outshooting the visitors 30-18 at the half on the way to a 6-3 lead.
Knowing they were facing Matt Vinc, arguably the top keeper in the NLL, the Rock peppered the St. Catharines native with shots and some found their way through.
“(Vinc) certainly made us earn them, there’s a couple of guys vying to pick up where Whipper (Watson) left off and he’s certainly one of them,” Doyle said of Vinc, who made 44 saves to Watson’s 33.
Rochester found some life in the fourth quarter, closing to within two when Jordan Hall scored on an extremely rare penalty shot with 12:28 remaining. But Doyle, as he has done countless times throughout his spectacular career, responded right away to restore a three-goal advantage. Doyle did it again with 2:55 left to stretch another Rock lead to three.
Fellow Toronto veteran Blaine Manning who led the team with nine loose balls praised his longtime teammate Doyle.
“They kept getting closer and he would give us breathing room,” Manning said.
“When you’re not scoring and you need a goal, to have a guy who can step up like that consistently is really special.”
The Rock had dropped four-of-five to finish the regular season and head coach Troy Cordingley said he was pleased to see his group rebound.
“We played well, we did all the little things well that we got away from for the last five games and got back to playing the way that makes us successful,” Cordingley said.
That meant returning to the up-tempo, pressure style of defending that has served the Rock so well during Cordingley’s tenure.
“I thought the defence was spectacular,” added the coach.
“We did a real good job of pressuring their top guys and forcing them into areas they don’t like to go.”
Garrett Billings also added six points for Toronto.
The Rock last met the Knighthawks in the 2007 playoffs, losing 10-6 in Rochester, the second straight playoff victory for Rochester against the Rock after four losses from 1999-2005.
Toronto went 7-1 at home this season but just 3-5 on the road, including a 15-14 overtime loss in Buffalo back in January.
The Rock took out the Bandits in the playoffs last season, but will have to do it again at unfriendly HSBC Arena instead of at the ACC.
If this was it for Watson’s incredible run in Toronto, the 41-year-old Guelph native was pleased to depart in fashion in front of the 10,228 on hand.
“I played here a lot of years and obviously wanted to finish on a high note,” Watson said.
“If we don’t end up coming back here, it was a great way to go out. I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve played here.”