Oh how sweet the number six is.
Led by seven first half goals, the Toronto Rock won their sixth National Lacrosse League title after they defeated the defending champions Washington Stealth 8-7 in the NLL Championship game on Sunday afternoon at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Canada.
“Every time you win it feels pretty good, but this is special because it feels like a new era,” said Toronto captain Colin Doyle to Versus after the game.
Doyle has now won six championships with the Rock, but this victory is different in that it is not part of the Toronto dynasty that won five titles in seven years from 1999-2005. The Rock’s six championships now tie them with the Philadelphia Wings for the most ever.
Led by two goals each from Kasey Beirnes and Garrett Billings, the Rock jumped out to a 7-2 lead at halftime, but the Stealth’s offense proved how dangerous they can be in the second, scoring four straight goals to make it a one goal game with less than 10 minutes to play.
With 8:01 left, Toronto’s Stephan Leblanc attacked the net from the right side and put the ball over Washington goaltender Tyler Richards’ right shoulder for what would be the game winning goal. Leblanc’s goal ended a 22:59 scoreless drought for the Rock, their longest of the season.
The Stealth answered 13 seconds later when Paul Rabil ripped a shot into the back of the net that had so much power that it knocked Toronto goaltender Bob Watson into the back of the cage.
Watson did not allow the same thing happen again as he stopped every shot by a Washington offense that was quickly running out of time.
“Time just felt like it was standing still,” Watson said at the post game news conference of the final minutes. “[I was] just trying to stay focus, try and get ready for the next shot and try and communicate with the defense. The guys did a fabulous job. We rushed the ball and I don’t think we gave them an opportunity in the final two-three minutes.”
After a big defensive stop, the Stealth pulled Richards in net and received possession of the ball with about 30 seconds left to play, but a turnover in the Rock’s end sealed Toronto’s first championship in six years.
Washington head coach Chris Hall said that he was disappointed by the execution of his team in the final sequence because it was a play that they had run thousands of times in games and practices during the season.
“It was disappointing to not execute the 6-on-5 when you know that is what it is going to come down to,” Hall said. “That was disappointing for me that we didn’t get the job done there. At least get a shot on goal and force them to make one more save.”
Watson, who is going to retire after this game, finished his career in style by making 46 saves on 53 shots and was named the game’s MVP.
“I’m just enjoying every minute of this,” Watson told Versus after the game. “These guys are awesome. It doesn’t get old, winning never gets old. You have to work for every ounce you get and this group worked very hard and was rewarded today.
“This is a special moment, and I will cherish it for the rest of my life.”
Watson retires as one of the best NLL players ever and will likely have a place in the league’s Hall of Fame in the near future.
Toronto head coach Troy Cordingley said the team is going to miss Watson and would love to have him back for a few more seasons.
“We are hoping he turns into Brett Favre,” Cordingley joked of Watson. “Bobby has done a great job for this organization and this league, and yes, you can’t replace a player like that. However, it just wasn’t one player that won the championship; it was the 26 guys on our roster.”
Toronto took the lead early in the title game with Glen Bryan scoring his first ever postseason goal 1:54 into the contest, but Washington quickly answered back as Cliff Smith scored 3:20 later to tie the game at one.
Beirnes scored twice at the end of the first quarter for the Rock in what began a 5-0 run for Toronto. Billings made it a 4-1 game for the Rock after receiving a great pass from Blaine Manning on a 2-on-1 chance, 34 seconds into the second.
Rob Hellyer and Manning added goals in the middle of the quarter to extend the Rock lead to five before Washington was able to answer back. Ratcliff scored with 2:08 before the half for the Stealth, but Billings added his second goal of the game with one minute left to push the lead back to five and make it a 7-2 game at the intermission.
Washington’s two goals in the first 30 minutes was the least amount that they have scored in any half this season, and Watson’s play was a big reason why.
“In the first half, he was stopping everything,” Ratcliff said of Watson. “The two we got by him were kind of lucky ones.”
In the second half, the Stealth began their comeback with four unanswered goals. Rhys Duch began the scoring nearly a minute into the third, but both team’s defenses stole the show for the remainder of the stanza as no goals were scored in over 13 minutes.
Finally late in the third quarter, Ratcliff scored to cut the Rock lead to 7-4. Washington added two more goals in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter with Ratcliff and Jeff Zywicki scoring to make it a one goal game. Zywicki’s goal was especially pretty as he dived through the crease from behind the net and beat Watson with the ball.
“They regrouped,” Cordingley said of the Stealth’s second half run. “They are the defending champs and they weren’t going to let the trophy get away easily.”
While Watson dominated the play in the first half, it was Richards who did the same for his team in the second.
“At half I said to myself, ‘If I could keep them to one [goal], it would give us a legit chance to win.’ I was going to have to stand tall and be big in there,” Richards said of his mindset in the locker room at halftime.
Richards made 50 saves in the contest, 20 of which came in the second half, and reached his mark by only allowing one ball to get past him. Unfortunately, the one goal he let in ended up being the game winner from Leblanc.
Rabil’s laser shot made it a one goal game, but there just was not enough time on the clock for Washington to complete the comeback and win back-to-back championships.
Ratcliff, who led all scorers in the game with three goals, said Watson’s strong play and the Stealth’s lack of offense in the first half is what the difference was in the game.
“We took too long to get going and we couldn’t get enough by [Watson] in a short period time.” Ratcliff said. “If we stepped up a little more in the first half, it could have been a different outcome.”
Toronto and Washington played in last year’s championship game with the Stealth winning 15-11, but that contest was in Everett, Wash., and not Toronto. After the game, Doyle said just like how the Stealth faithful led their team to the victory a year ago, so did the 14,488 Rock fans that were in attendance on Sunday.
“It felt like last year we had that game in control and we made one mistake and their crowd jumped all over us and we couldn’t get our feet going again,” Doyle said. “I felt like when we needed our crowd here tonight, they certainly stepped up. Even at the end when they were charging, our fans got up and the momentum started to turn.”
Even with the loss of Watson, the 2011 Toronto team might be the beginning of a new Rock dynasty, and with several young stars expected to return next season, Cordingley hinted that more championships may be on the way.
“We want to continue to be a competitive team,” Cordingley said. “We want to win – bottom line. We want to win championships.”
Ron Knabenbauer is a National Lacrosse League Correspondent for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand or from official interview materials