When the Toronto Rock had lost three in a row on March to sit in last place in the National Lacrosse League's East Division, climbing their way to the top seemed almost out of the question.
Now their heading into the playoffs as the top team in the East.
Garrett Billings had five goals and three assists and Stephan Leblanc scored the go-ahead goal late in the game as the Rock defeated the Edmonton Rush 12-11 in both teams' regular-season finales on Saturday.
Josh Sanderson had two goals and Scott Johnston, Colin Doyle, Brenden Thenhaus and Kasey Beirnes scored the others for the Rock (9-7), who have won five of their last six games and clinched first place in the East Division — their first divisional title since 2005.
“We found a way to win,” said Toronto head coach Troy Cordingley. “We wanted to get first in our division on our own terms and not through someone else winning.
“We were in last place six weeks ago. They had a team meeting and talked about things that needed to change. The ownership is on them and they have changed the direction of the team. We are playing some good lacrosse right now.”
Team captain Doyle, who added seven assists in the game, said finishing first in the East has to be considered a real achievement for a team which righted a sinking ship.
“It's a pretty good accomplishment,” he said. “We really battled through the year and we feel like we have earned it. In other years we have had better records and didn't win the East. Winning it in the regular season is one thing, though. Winning it outright in the playoffs is another.”
Toronto will take on the Buffalo Bandits in the first round of the NLL playoffs, starting next Saturday at Air Canada Centre.
Shawn Williams had three goals and two assists for the Rush (6-10), who will face Calgary in the first round of the playoffs. Zack Greer had two goals for Edmonton while Scott Evans, Aaron Wilson, Brett Mydske, Ryan Dilks, Ryan Ward and Corey Small also scored.
“We weren't ready to play in the first half, that was pretty evident, but we did battle back,” Rush head coach Derek Keenan said. “I think if we play 60 minutes we can beat anybody. Once again, we really dug ourselves a hole there, but we got ourselves out of it. It wasn't even execution, it was effort and compete level.”
Toronto kicked off the scoring three minutes into the game as Billings snagged a rebound off of the boards and put it past Edmonton goalie Aaron Bold.
The Rock got their second unassisted goal of the match before Edmonton finally got on the board as Evans put a power-play shot past goaltender Nick Rose to make it a 2-1 game after the opening quarter.
Toronto surged ahead 4-1 on early second-quarter goals just 29 second apart from Doyle and Billings.
Billings showed why he is the second-leading scorer in the league midway through the second as he walked around the entire Rush defence to score his hat trick goal short-handed.
The teams traded goals before Sanderson scored a power-play goal for a 7-2 Toronto lead.
Edmonton cut that advantage to four goals on a Williams shot in the final minute.
The Rush showed a bit more life to start the third quarter with Greer's 30th goal of the season just 19 seconds in, followed a minute later by a end-to-end goal by Mydske to make it 7-5.
Each team put another in the net before Toronto started to get off its heels and Billings scored his fourth of the game with the man advantage to make it 9-6 for the Rock.
However, the Rock took a costly five-minute major penalty when Glen Bryan was called for cross-checking, allowing the Rush to strike for power-play goals from Greer and Ward and close the score to 9-8.
Edmonton tied the game with just over a minute left in the third frame on a long short-handed pass to Williams, who tucked it past Rose. Bold picked up his third assist on the play, breaking a team record for assists for a goal in a season.
The Rush continued to storm Toronto with their fourth unanswered goal 41 seconds in by Small to take their first lead of the match.
Toronto knotted the game back up on Billings' fifth of the night but Williams responded with his hat trick goal 30 seconds later for an 11-10 Edmonton lead
The Rock counterpunched with another power play goal, this one by Beirnes, to tie it up again with nine minutes left in the fourth.
Toronto kicked it back into high gear at 11-11 with five minutes to play on a goal by Leblanc and the Rock were able to hang on from there.
Notes: Toronto won the last match between the teams 12-8 at home on April 7. ... Edmonton had leading scorer Zack Greer back in the lineup after missing the last two games with an injury. ... The Rock have dramatically turned their season around since the acquisition of goaltender Nick Rose from Calgary in mid March. Rose started all six games during the hot streak, and came into the game with a 10.63 goals-against average and .751 save percentage... Toronto entered the match with a 9-3 record all-time over Edmonton. ... The Rush handed out their seasonal player awards following the contest, naming Derek Suddons top transition player, Kyle Rubisch top defender, Jimmy Quinlan unsung hero and goalie Aaron Bold team MVP.
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