HAMILTON – Seconds after the Buffalo Bandits scored to open the second half, Josh Jubenville forced a turnover then scored on a return pass. It was at that moment everyone knew the Toronto Rock was not going to lose on Saturday.
For the first time this season, the Rock (12-4) hold sole possession of first place in the NLL east division after an 18-7 dismantling of the Bandits. It was also a clear message to its rivals from down he QEW that they are ready to avenge a heartbreaking loss in last year’s playoffs.
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The Bandits (11-4) may have won the first meeting 11-8 back in December and yes, there’s a game on April 22 at KeyBank Center that will ultimately determine who will go to the playoffs as the top seed. But on this night before 13,127 fans at First Ontario Centre, the largest Rock home crowd in a decade, the Rock was dominant from the opening faceoff to the fights that broke out in the dying seconds of the contest.
The Rock defense was stellar all game and goaltender Nick Rose ended with 41 saves before giving Troy Holowchuk some cleanup duty. T D Ierlan was dominant in the faceoff circle and was a big part of two early shorthanded goals that set the Rock on its way. Jubenville’s effort was a microcosm of what Toronto’s defense presents to even the best offensive teams in the league.
“We were dialed in on putting pressure on them breaking out of their end,” Jubenville said. “It’s something we do well and something we take pride in because we’re really athletic in the back end.”
“It just shows that every quarter, we’re going to be all over you when you have the ball.”
Leading the way again for Toronto was Corey Small, who opened the scoring 1:56 in and ended with five on the night. Dan Craig scored twice in a seven-goal first quarter and ended with three. Tom Schreiber scored twice late to end up with four on the night. Jubenville and Challen Rogers each scored twice. Latrell Harris and Brandon Slade also scored.
“Going into the game, guys were pretty fired up in the locker room and throughout the week,” Small said. “We had that extra energy when we started.”
“Buffalo thrives with the lead and we did a good job of jumping out on them.”
Bandits’ goaltender Matt Vinc was pulled after the Rock’s sixth goal but returned in the second quarter after a spell by Devlin Shanahan. Shanahan also finished the game. Chris Cloutier and Josh Byrne scored twice for the Bandits. Kyle Buchanan, Dhane Smith and Dalton Sulver added one each.
The Rock get a week off before finishing the home side of the regular season against the Philadelphia Wings on April 15.
“At this point of the year, it’s about consistency,” Small said. “During the year, we’re trying to figure things out.”
“I think we’re there but we have to match this two weeks from now.”