BUFFALO — If the Toronto Rock is going to win its first Champion’s Cup in six years, it’s going to have to be a lot more consistent.
The Rock shrugged off a couple of bewildering lapses to beat the Buffalo Bandits 12-11 in the National Lacrosse League Eastern Division final at HSBC Arena.
Toronto next weekend will play the winner of the Western final between the Calgary Roughnecks and Washington Stealth, a game that was played late Saturday night.
The Rock, which lost to the Stealth in the NLL final a year ago, will be at home next Sunday if the opponent is Washington; if it’s the Roughnecks, the game will be in Calgary.
The Bandits did not have leading scorer John Tavares, who participated in the pre-game warmup but wound up being a late scratch. Tavares played through a tight calf muscle a week ago to lead the Bandits to a playoff win against Boston.
The rivalry involving the Rock and Bandits is a long and often nasty one — note the bench-clearing brawl between the teams in the pre-season — but there wasn’t much out of the ordinary on Saturday night.
Buffalo, before a crowd of 12,184, didn’t need Tavares to mount a couple of large comebacks.
The Rock took a 12-7 lead in the opening minute of the fourth quarter when Garrett Billings scored his third of the game while Toronto was shorthanded.
But the Bandits then reeled off four goals in a row, with Kyle Clancy netting his fourth of the game at 10:25 to make it 12-11. But the Bandits could not beat Bob Watson again, and the Rock escaped with the victory. Watson made difficult stops on Mark Steenhuis and Brett Bucktooth in the final minute.
Billings also had three assists. Stephan Leblanc also got three goals for Toronto.
The Rock led 9-6 at the half and might have completely blown a pair of large leads if not for a pair of goals by Leblanc in the final minute. Leblanc’s third goal of the game, at 14:46, was a beauty, coming off a one-timer on a pass from Blaine Manning. The ball barely was on Leblanc’s stick before it was behind Angus Goodleaf.
That restored a three-goal Toronto lead.
What came before that final minute, however, probably had Rock coach Troy Cordingley lighting into his players at halftime.
The boisterous crowd at HSBC was put in silent mode as the Rock toyed with the Bandits in the early going. Toronto had a 6-0 lead by 2:12 of the second quarter and it appeared as though the visitors could go into cruise control.
In a sense, that’s what they did, and the Bandits stole their way back into the game.
Watson was not sharp for spurts, and Buffalo reeled off three goals in a row after coach Darris Kilgour made a goaltending change. Out went Mike Thompson, who surrendered six goals on 23 shots. In came Goodleaf, and the momentum swung into the Bandits’ favour.
Colin Doyle got the Rock’s heads back in the game when he picked off a pass attempt by the Bandits’ Darryl Gibson and buried the ball behind a surprised Goodleaf. That gave Toronto a 7-3 lead.
But the good feelings were short-lived. Buffalo scored on its next two shots — giving it five goals on five consecutive shots — and got to within two goals.
Watson suddenly remembered he was facing the end of his illustrious NLL career, and stopped Jon Harasym and Jay Thorimbert, who both had unimpeded opportunities.
Tracey Kelusky scored a power-play goal to get the Bandits to make the score 7-6, but Leblanc then got his late pair. Before Leblanc’s first goal in the final minute, at 14:16, Watson made a fine stop on Steve Priolo.