Josh Sanderson finally had reason to celebrate his return to the Toronto Rock.
The veteran forward, re-acquired during the off-season, had suffered with his teammates through two defeats to begin the new National Lacrosse League season, but a fourth-quarter Rock rally resulting in six consecutive goals and a 13-11 win over the Rochester Knighthawks led to a joyous post-game scene Friday night.
“We needed that win,” Sanderson said as he mingled with fans on the green carpet. “Once we got clicking and got some momentum going things felt good.”
The comeback win was achieved with Colin Doyle sitting out the second half with a pulled hamstring. It was his 188th consecutive game, tying Steve Toll's NLL record, and he won't be breaking it because coach Troy Cordingley said the captain will sit out a game in Calgary on Saturday night to rest up.
“It was disappointing getting hurt but it was a nice fourth quarter to watch,” said Doyle, who watched the rest of the game on a dressing room monitor. “We looked flat and unorganized then you get a quick goal by Josh to spark things and a big play by Garrett and the guys started to take things over. All the right things started happening.”
Sanderson and Billings each scored twice during the rally and each finished with three goals, Jamie Rooney got two in his first game with the Rock, and Stephan Leblanc, Kasey Beirnes, Ryan Sharp, Stephen Hoar and Pat Merrill added one each for the Rock.
Toronto trailed 9-6 with 10 minutes remaining and scored the next six goals.
“It was looking a little scary there,” said Billings. “But we turned it on and played well when it mattered. Luckily, we pulled out the win.”
Cordingley lauded the work of offensive co-ordinator John Lovell.
“John kept positive and created some stuff with our guys,” said Cordingley. “It was a desperate situation for us but the guys stepped up. That was a character win. When we show the will to win and to battle for loose balls, that's how good we can be.”
Cody Jamieson scored four goals and assisted on three for Rochester, 1-2. Johnny Powless and Cory Vitarelli got two each and Stephen Keogh, Travis Hill and Mike Accursi added one apiece.
With Rochester up 9-6, Sanderson converted a cross-floor pass from Beirnes, Hoar bounced one in from the edge of the crease after being set up by Dan Carey and Rooney dove into the crease to beat Matt Vinc and tie it 9-9.
Billings then raced around Rory Glaves and beat Vinc with a high shot, and Sanderson and Billings whipped in sidearm bullets. Count `em: six goals in eight minutes. Jamieson made it 12-10 with an overhand shot from the top of the power-play setup, Merrill added an empty-net goal, and Vitarelli capped the scoring.
Rochester outshot Toronto 53-49. Matt Roik earned the goaltending victory, adding an exclamation mark to his team's win by stopping Jamieson on a penalty shot with 23.4 seconds left.
“Roiker was huge tonight,” said Sanderson. “He kept us in it. We were down 9-6 and he made some huge saves. They go to 10-6, it's over. Once we got on a roll the crowd (of 11,862) helped us out and away we went.”
Roik earned his first win in a Toronto uniform. How did that rally look from his crease?
“I saw a team go on a run, a team that was motivated, determined and focused,” he said. “We didn't worry about what happened here against Calgary or what happened in Buffalo.
“That's the best defence I've ever played behind. Wow, those boys have got a lot of heart.”
Drew Petkoff took his spot on the Toronto defence for the first time since injuring a knee last April, and he made his presence felt.
“We all came together and worked really hard,” he said. “That fourth quarter, everyone gave it his all. The offence did some amazing work. Same with all the defensive guys. We all pulled together. Roiker played great. Everyone just came together at the end. We really wanted to get that win. Nobody likes starting the season 0-2 as defending champs and we really didn't want to start 0-3. We pulled our socks up and got that fourth quarter done.”
It was 2-2 after one quarter, 5-5 at halftime and 7-6 for Rochester after three.
Rochester blew four leads.
“We let that one slip away,” said Vinc. “We had our chances to take over the game in the fourth but they're a good team and they were able to put a couple in and get the momentum on their side. We kind of fell apart and gave it to them. Take away the last 10 minutes and it's a win for us but, same thing as last weekend, we've got to play a full 60 minutes and I don't think we've done that so far this year.”
Knighthawks captain Pat McCready agreed with the premise that one more goal when his team was up 9-6 would have put the Rock away.
“Definitely,” he said. “A little bit of lack of composure tonight. We might have sat back a little bit. We gave them a few opportunities in transition that they capitalized on. That turned the tide of the game.”
Toronto was 4-for-6 on power plays, including a huge power-play goal by Rooney with five minutes left to tie it 9-9. Rochester 1-for-5 on power plays.
“I don't think the refereeing was very good in the last stages of the game,” said Rochester coach Mike Hasen. “But you know coming into Toronto they're going to get the extra little call and they got it and ran with it and we couldn't recover.”
NOTES: To make room for Petkoff, rookie D Jesse Gamble was dropped to the practice roster . . . In the previous Toronto-Rochester meeting, Toronto won the 2011 East semifinal 12-10 at home . . . Rock scratches were F Rob Hellyer, D Mike Hobbins and F Brenden Thenhaus . . . The Knighthawks deleted F Joe Walters, T Joel White and F Alex Kedoh Hill . . . Since 1998 when he was the league's rookie of the year, Doyle missed one game and that was 12 years ago.