Rock rally to beat Bandits
Advance to East Division final
Colin Doyle was a big part of plenty of sensational lacrosse when he was helping the Toronto Rock win five National Lacrosse League championships, but he couldn't remember anything as incredible as what happened Saturday night.
After relinquishing the first six goals, the Rock stormed back to beat the Buffalo Bandits 13-11 in the first NLL playoff game in Air Canada Centre since the last Rock title triumph in 2005, advancing to the East Division final against the Orlando Titans in Florida next weekend.
"I don't remember being down like that in a playoff game and being able to battle back," the sweat-soaked captain said amid the dressing room celebrations. "There's a pretty resilient bunch in here.
"I'm pretty proud of our group. I didn't want any players to see any quit in me and I didn't want to see any quit in any of our players, and I didn't. It was phenomenal. To look down that bench and to still see the will and the desire to win is a pretty good thing when you're down 6-0 at home to a very good team."
Rookie sensation Stephan Leblanc scored five goals, Doyle got four, Blaine Manning contributed two and Mike Hominuck and Garrett Billings added one each for the Rock while goaltender Bob Watson made big save after big save as his teammates rallied.
Leblanc gave Toronto its first lead, 12-11, when he quickly took a cross-crease pass from Billings and flicked the ball into the open top corner of the Bandits' net on a power play with 5:27 remaining.
Doyle then converted on a similar play orchestrated by Billings with 4:58 left for Toronto's fourth consecutive goal on goalie Mike Thompson.
The Rock fans among the 9,367 in Air Canada Centre saw something special, and Bandits fans who made the trek across the Queen Elizabeth Way were left shaking their heads in disbelief.
There weren't enough superlatives to describe Leblanc's performance.
"The kid is a phenomenal player," said coach Troy Cordingley. "A rookie stepping up huge like that.
The Bandits led 2-0 after one quarter and 7-4 at halftime.
"We could feel that we were taking over the game the last nine minutes of the second quarter," said Cordingley. "We talked at halftime about leaving everything on the floor and we did that."
Buffalo was led by Mike Accursi's six-goal effort, while Mark Steenhuis and Brett Bucktooth scored two each and Roger Vyse got one.
The Bandits were so dominant early on that when they went up 5-0, Cordingley pulled Watson and sent in Steve Dietrich. When he allowed two goals on two shots, Watson was told to go back in.
"Troy just told me to calm down and play my game," said Watson.
"I went back out and concentrated on just making the next save and not worry about what happened in the past."
"You know a guy like that is not going to get rattled," Billings said of Watson. "He's been around so long and won so many championships that he knows how to win."
Leblanc said he could feel the crowd's excitement build.
"You could feel the building getting more hyped every time we scored another goal and by the end they were just crazy loud — the sixth or seventh man on the floor, whatever you want to call it. It was just awesome."
Buffalo's defence threw the Rock offence for a loop in the early going.
"They kind of threw some tricks at us," said Leblanc. "They were playing almost a zone [defence] and we weren't prepared for that.
"They hadn't played it all year so it threw us off guard a little bit, along with nerves in the first half of the game. You know what? Once we figured it out … we stuck to our game plan and we wound up being successful.
"Coming back was huge. It shows real character. It was an amazing feeling coming off this night with a win."
On the winning goal, Leblanc figured Billings might take the shot himself.
"Nine times out of 10 he'd score that goal," said Leblanc. "So the goalie has to overplay him and then when he feeds me I'm just dunking into the open side of the net. You don't have to do much of the work. Garrett is amazing like that."
Manning wondered if the Rock would ever catch up after falling so far behind.
"I didn't think we were ever going to get there," he said.
"All year we went down to big deficits to those guys and every time we chipped away but they'd come back and win.
"To tie it was a good feeling and to go ahead felt great."
Like Doyle, he couldn't recall a similarly fantastic Rock comeback in a playoff game.
"It's definitely up there, especially given what was on the line," he said. "Lacrosse is a game of swings but not usually that big. To be able to do that, in front of a crowd that was so loud, it was just a great night for the Rock."
Buffalo forward John Tavares was dejected as he emerged from the Bandits' dressing room. Pro lacrosse's all-time leading scorer failed to get a goal.
"I fought the ball all game long," said Tavares. "It was disappointing.
"We made a valiant effort getting into the playoffs but we didn't take advantage of a great first half in this one."
Up 6-0, he'd figured the Bandits were advancing.
"We collapsed under pressure," he said. "They outhustled us in the second half. They dominated loose balls and second chances and created turnovers that created opportunities, and we didn't do any of that."
Buffalo had a 22-15 edge in shots on goal in the first half and Toronto wound up ahead 46-37 when it was all over.