May 8, 2012

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Stevens: Rock-Bandits Quarterfinal Will Have Spot in NLL Lore

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

Entering Saturday's NLL playoffs, Toronto was 0-3 when trailing at halftime and Buffalo was 5-1 when leading at the break. The trends were bucked with help from a late game video review.
© Ward Laforme

Toronto Rock fans will fondly recall many years from now the oddity of a 7-6 home win over Buffalo that opened the 2012 National Lacrosse League playoffs.

Bandits fans will prefer that their memory banks have been robbed, of course, but regardless of which side a fan supported last Saturday night, all would agree that the game had a bizarre ending.

Buffalo led 4-0 after one quarter and 6-2 at halftime. Anthony Cosmo, looking for his first playoff goaltending win in five years, was giving the Bandits everything they'd hoped for when they dealt away 2013 and 2014 first-round entry draft picks to get him in February as insurance in case Mikey Thompson got hurt. Thompson got hurt. Cosmo stepped in. This was a policy that was paying off handsomely.

Through the regular season, Buffalo was 5-1 when leading at halftime. Toronto was 0-3 when trailing at halftime. Any reporter considering these trends and glancing at the scoreboard at halftime Saturday would have started preparing a game-over story to let the world know that the Bandits were boldly moving on and that Toronto's shot at a championship repeat had been extinguished.

But wait.

Nick Rose, in his very first pro playoff start, suddenly throws a brick wall across the Rock goal line, his defensemen begin checking as if their lives depend on slamming every Bandits forward to the floor, and Garrett Billings puts a ball behind Cosmo at 9:47 of the third quarter to make it 6-3.

Stand up, Kasey Beirnes, because this is your time.

The 11-year veteran gets little recognition but is one of the NLL's most remarkable crease crashers. He scored more goals (28) this season than in any of his previous eight, proving he hasn't lost his finishing touch. He puts a ball between Cosmo's legs at 13:20 the third, wiggles to the front of the crease to swing in a sidearm bullet 2:11 into the fourth, and completes a natural hat trick with another pinpoint shot at 5:17.

It's 6-6.

Jon Harasym suddenly has a cramp, the Buffalo trainer rushes onto the floor, and there is a delay that interrupts Toronto's momentum. Wise move. The teams spend the next eight scoreless minutes trading shots. Rose is stopping everything the Bandits are throwing at him, and Cosmo is continuing to play well, too. It's still anybody's game.

Brenden Thenhaus, signed by Toronto off the Bandits practice squad on Jan. 16, has one hand on his stick in traffic as he sweeps an underhand shot towards Cosmo, the ball strikes the inside of the post to the goalie's right, and caroms into the net with 1:35 remaining. The crowd goes nuts.

A minute left and the Bandits get off a couple more shots but still can't get a ball past Rose. The final seconds approach and Toronto has possession of the ball.

But wait.

Rock defenseman Bill Greer is assessed with eight seconds left a penalty for holding a Bandits stick. He's stunned as the ball is handed to the Bandits as he shuffles off to the penalty box.

Play resumes, the ball will get to John Tavares, who bounces a ball past Rose in the last second. Tavares jumps for joy and his teammates surround him in celebration. There is an automatic video review because it is the last minute but Rose figures it's merely a formality.

''I thought it was a good goal,'' Rose says afterwards. ''I thought they were just reviewing the time left on the clock. I thought it was going to be a good goal because I knew it went in before the buzzer went.''

Greer can't believe it.

''You want to talk about a rollercoaster of emotions?'' he says. ''First off, I don't know how I got the penalty. There was nobody near me. [The referee] pointed at me. I felt as if I was going to lose my mind.

''In the box, [the Bandits] tried some fancy play. I thought, 'There's no way that is going to work.' And then Tavares scores. I was so mad.''

But wait.

Players, coaches, soft drink vendors and 9,472 standing spectators await a ruling as a referee studies the replay on a penalty box monitor. The scoring play is shown on the screens high above the floor and players on the Toronto bench start celebrating what they believe will be a no-goal assessment by the refs.

''As soon as they showed the replay on the big screen, we saw that one of their players who was cutting through [the crease] was standing right in the crease and we knew right there that they had to call that back,'' says Beirnes.

''I look over at our bench and the guys are going, 'No goal, no goal.' It was a whirwind of emotions for me,'' says Greer.

The referee takes off earphones, steps back onto the floor, extends both arms at his waist as if he's pretending to be an airplane, and waves them back and forth. No goal. Buffalo forward Tracey Kelusky, who had been jostling with defenseman Sandy Chapman, was in Toronto's crease when the ball entered the net.

''They teach you in tyke to stay out of the crease,'' says Kelusky, sitting dejectedly on a bench in a somber Bandits dressing room 30 minutes later.

''I thought they were just reviewing the time left on the clock. I thought it was going to be a good goal because I knew it went in before the buzzer went.''

-- Toronto goalie Nick Rose on a last-second John Tavares' goal that was eventually overturned

Kelusky is asked for his analysis of the game.

''We played very well in the first half and we also created some good opportunities in the third quarter but Rosie made some big saves,'' he says. ''My hat goes off to both goalies. Cosmo was phenomenal for us. At the end of the day, you can't go 34 minutes without scoring a goal in this league and expect to win.''

Rose wasn't hogging the credit for holding the Bandits off for nearly 34 minutes.

''Our defense stepped it up,'' he says. ''Anytime you can get the support from your teammates like that, that's the result you're going to get.''

Adds Beirnes: ''That's one of the biggest comebacks I've been a part of.''

Colin Doyle is reminded of the regular-season halftime trends: Buffalo 5-1 when leading and Toronto 3-0 when trailing.

''You stick with something long enough, believe in what you're doing, good things might happen,'' the Rock captain offers. ''You get some goaltending and you start earning your breaks and maybe the ball starts falling for you instead of hitting the pipes and out.''

They were only down by four at halftime and that's not a big difference in lacrosse.

''There wasn't a lot of panic in the room,'' says Doyle. ''We were weathering the storm and really believed in what we were doing.

''We just weren't scoring and sometimes that's just a hat off to the guy at the other end. We were outshooting them by 15 or something and he was making some spectacular saves. Then Rosie turns it around in the second half and shuts the door. Boom, you're in a 7-6 game.''

Billings was calling to Thenhaus to pass him the ball before Thenhaus took the shot that won the game for the Rock.

''He pulled off the one-handed, post-and-in goal and I started screaming I was so happy,'' says Billings. ''I remember it quite vividly. That was incredible, especially against his old team.''

''That's the way we drew it up on the board,'' Thenhaus kids Billings.

There have been some glorious memories in Rock franchise history. Kaleb Toth's title-winning goal against Rochester with one second remaining 12 years ago was the last goal scored in Maple Leaf Gardens in a championship pro game in any sport. Bob Watson's MVP goaltending a year ago. This one, a total team effort, ranks right up there.

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli -- a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor -- are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame.


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