SAINT PAUL, Minn. – The Swarm (7-9) will play at the Toronto Rock (10-6) this Sunday in the East Division Semifinals at 2 p.m. CT. The game will be broadcast locally by FOX Sports North PLUS.
It will be the third matchup between Minnesota and Toronto this season, with each home team winning the previous games by one goal. This contest will be amplified, however, as it is a win-or-go-home playoff scenario.
“Our teams line up really well against each other and that’s representative of the two times we played against one another this year,” head coach Joe Sullivan said. “It’s really going to come down to those little battles on the floor in the end, like keeping our defense disciplined, staying out of the penalty box, and capitalizing on scoring chances. All of those little things will highlight who is prepared to win and which team is going to play smart and we’re going to work hard to do that.”
The Swarm lost the first game between the two teams at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre 13-12 on Jan. 25 despite a strong effort from F Kiel Matisz, who recorded his first career hat trick in the contest. The next game against the Rock, Friday Feb. 8 on Treasure Island Field at Xcel Energy Center, featured the same 13-12 score as the first contest – except the Swarm nabbed the narrow victory in sudden death overtime. While the teams split their season series early on in the year, Minnesota has really caught its stride as of late – winning four of its last six games after kicking off the season with a 3-7 record.
“The difference between those two games comes down to maturity,” Sullivan said. “We’re a young team that has been really patient with our young players and allow them to have time to make some mistakes and then turn around in the back half of the year and become more successful. That all comes down to the fact that these guys have confidence in themselves and buy into the family-first program we’ve established in Minnesota. The program is really headed in the right direction and a lot of that is a result of the guys maturing. I see us in a much better situation than the last time we played Toronto.”
Much of that improvement can be attributed to the development of Minnesota’s rookies, four of which were selected in the first round of the 2012 NLL Entry Draft. Forwards Shayne Jackson and Matisz broke the Swarm rookie season scoring record of 60 points. Transition player Brock Sorensen flashed his versatility, scoring six goals on the year despite playing a defensive role. Defenseman Alex Crepinsek showed why Sullivan calls him a “shutdown defender”, forcing 18 turnovers in the regular season – second best on the team and top-15 in the league. In addition, F Matt Gibson, who the Swarm selected in the fifth round of last year’s draft, has come on lately. The Yale alum notched career-highs in points (5) and goals (2) in Minnesota’s game against Colorado last week.
“All of our rookies made mistakes early on in the year, but what makes them special is that they don’t repeat those mistakes,” Sullivan said. “As our young offensive guys got better, it was because Callum Crawford and Ryan Benesch started to include them more and help out with their development. Defensively, guys like Jeff Gilbert and Andrew Suitor have been working a lot with Brock Sorensen and Alex Crepinsek to learn from them side-by-side. It’s really all about the veteran leaders on our squad around the rookies, along with their willingness to learn, that has made this team that much more dangerous heading into the playoffs.”
Minnesota was led in scoring this season by forward Callum Crawford, who recorded 95 points (32g, 63a) and was just awarded the NLL’s April Player of the Month. Crawford’s teammate on the left side, forward Ryan Benesch, scored a team-high of 34 goals. Transition player Jordan MacIntosh had a sensational second season for the Swarm, finishing with 55 points and setting franchise records for loose balls (197) and faceoff win percentage (55.5%). Minnesota featured a tandem of second year goaltenders, Tyler Carlson and Evan Kirk. Kirk finished the year with a 3-3 record and Carlson led the team with a goals allowed average of 11.04.
As a team, Minnesota led the league in NLL Player of the Week awards with 17. The Swarm scored 219 goals on the season – a team record – which included back-to-back 20+ goal games. Minnesota is the first team to score 20 or more goals in consecutive games since the Buffalo Bandits did so in 2005.
Garret Billings led the East Division champion Rock in scoring this season with 100 points (30g, 70a) and goaltender Nick Rose had a 10-5 record to go along with a .791 save percentage.
Minnesota’s playoff berth in 2013 marked the fourth consecutive season that the team has made the postseason as well as the seventh time in the Swarm’s nine years of existence. Last year, the Swarm advanced to the West Division Finals for the first time in team history after collecting their first-ever postseason victory on the road against the Colorado Mammoth in the West Division Semifinals.
This weekend’s matchup between No. 4 seed Minnesota and No. 1 seed Toronto marks the first time that the two will have met in the playoffs. Due to the NLL’s crossover rule, the Swarm will start the postseason in the East Division this year. The crossover rule allows the fifth place West Division team to take the place of the fourth place team from the East Division if the fifth place team has a better record. Sunday’s matchup can also be seen on TSN2 in Canada and will be streamed live on YouTube.com/TLN in the U.S. and outside Canada.
There will also be an official viewing party for the game at Burger Moe’s in Saint Paul, located just steps from Xcel Energy Center.