NLL: It’s Miller time in Toronto as Rock win big over Black Wolves

It’s Miller time in Toronto.

A week after backup goaltender Brandon Miller relieved Nick Rose in Buffalo to lead the Rock to a home-floor playoff berth, he backstopped the team to an 18-10 win in the east division semi-final over the New England Black Wolves at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday.

The Rock scored a season-high 19 goals in Buffalo and came one shy of matching that versus New England. After a four game losing streak late in the season, the offensive explosion feels good.

“A lot of credit goes to our vets on the offensive side,” Tom Schreiber praised. “We’re a mix of veterans and rookies. Leblanc, Hickey, Beirnes, guys like that who have been around have done a phenomenal job of keeping us calm and sticking to what we know. It paid off in Buffalo and we’re riding that high right now.”

Rose, beloved in Toronto, has been struggling of late. Saturday he allowed five goals on 11 shots before Sawyer pulled him. Fans had wanted Miller to have a chance.

“Rose is one of the reasons why we got to this point and why we have this opportunity but when you get to this point in the season you need to make those decisions, sooner rather than later,” Sawyer explained.

Miller, who just celebrated his 38th birthday, had off-season hip surgery and spent the first part of the season on the IR as he rehabbed. Prior to last week’s game, he had played only 24 minutes over four games in 2017.

Miller is a big-game goaltender. He has an uncanny ability to pick up his team’s slack and be the difference-maker. Most recently, he did it for the Six Nations Chiefs in the 2013 Mann Cup and the 2014 MSL final. He’s frustrating to shoot on.

“I lost a lot of these games early in my career,” Miller reflected. “You find out pretty quickly when you turn 38, and even before that, you don’t get them as often as you like. You just start bearing down instead of getting nervous. You bear down because the opportunity is so huge. I was happy to be able to do that tonight.”

Schreiber led with four goals and three assists while Brett Hickey had a pair of goals and six assists. The Rock trailed 6-5 after the first quarter but a shutout second from Miller had them up 9-6 at the half.

The Rock scored six of their goals in transition, a part of their game that was dangerous in the early part of the season but went quiet towards the end.

“Transition is a tricky thing. It’s tough to create transition opportunities if you’re not playing strong defense. Our transition doesn’t come from cheating or leaking out of the defensive zone, it comes from defensive stops. The stronger we are in our own end, the better our transition is,” Sawyer said.

The Rock outscored the Black Wolves 3-1 in the third and 6-3 in the fourth. The Wolves pulled Evan Kirk for Doug Jamieson with seven minutes left and scored right away but soon after the Rock took advantage of the Wolves’ empty net.

Miller only allowed five goals in 47 minutes of play, making 30 saves.

“Anytime you have that luxury where you have a guy like that who can step in and have a dominant performance like that you know you’re in good shape,” Schreiber said. “This team has full confidence and faith in Rosey. If we need to go to B we have him as well so that’s a huge advantage for our squad.”

Everything went right for the Rock. In addition to their offensive outburst and stellar goaltending, the defense played their best game as a unit this season. Captain Brodie Merill scooped 14 loose balls. The Wolves top forwards in Evans, Kevin Crowley, Kevin Buchanan and Kyle Buchanan were completely shut down.

The Black Wolves said their game plan didn’t change once Miller took the reins.

“Your offensive plan is set in getting quality looks so it doesn’t really change how you want to play the game but he certainly came in and did well so credit to him, he did his job,” head coach Glenn Clark said. “We couldn’t generate quality looks; we couldn’t generate goals. When you do that you start pressing and start getting out of your own rhythm. It starts snowballing and you’re chasing it and that’s what happened. We were trying to make things happen and go off-script and when you do that you make it worse for yourself.”

“We’re good shooters and we read goalies,” Kyle Buchanan said. “We play these guys enough and we see enough tape… that we know both goalies. We were more focused on our offense as a whole as opposed to who was in net.”

Also scoring for the Rock were Stephan Leblanc (2G/3A), Kasey Beirnes (2G/1A), Brodie Merrill (2G/1A), Damon Edwards (2G), Reid Reinholdt (1G/3A), Jesse Gamble (1G/1A), Dan Lintner (1G/1A) and Jeff Gilbert (1G).

The Black Wolves were led by Shawn Evans and Kevin Crowley with two goals each. Singles were scored by Reilly O’Connor, Chad Culp, Brett Bucktooth, Sheldon Burns, Jay Thorimbert and Kyle Buchanan. Kirk surrendered 15 goals on 53 shots. Jamieson allowed two goals on six shots.

The Rock have a week to rest before hosting the Georgia Swarm in game one of the eastern division finals on Saturday, May 13. It’s a two game series; if the teams split the games, a ten-minute mini-game is held to decide the winner. Georgia will host game two of the series on Saturday, May 20.

“It’s a great matchup for lacrosse fans,” Miller said of the next series. “It’ll be a hard fought series. It’ll be a lot of fun. They have a high powered offense but we put up 18 tonight… All year we were the two best teams in the east. We’ll battle it out for the right to play in the championship. It should be fun.”