Toronto -- Three months ago, the Swarm (8-9) had a multiple goal lead at the Toronto Rock (10-7) heading into the second half, but faltered down the stretch to lose 13-12. But this is a different Swarm team and Sunday afternoon's East Division Semifinal game provided a different result as Minnesota ran past the Rock 20-11 to advance to the NLL Division Finals for the second straight year.
“The difference is maturity,” head coach Joe Sullivan said after the game. “Our leaders have been pivotal later in the year and all of our young guys have matured as well. In a 16-game season it takes rookies about five or six games to adjust and our first year guys were playing in every game. They have all had the opportunity to get their feet underneath them, gain confidence and trust amongst one another, and they’ve come together at the right time. We now have a big game to prepare for, but this game shows how we’re evolving as a group.”
After scoring a franchise playoff record of 20 goals to win its second playoff game in franchise history, Minnesota will now advance to the East Division Finals at the Rochester Knighthawks Saturday May 4 at 4 p.m. CT. The game will be broadcast nationally by CBS Sports Network. There will be a viewing party for next weekend’s game; details to be disclosed later.
Minnesota and Rochester have not played an official game against one another this season, but did face off in an exhibition contest at Blue Cross Arena in January. Minnesota lost that game 11-10 despite a multi-goal effort from rookie Kiel Matisz.
“They’re the defending champions, so we’re going in there expecting to see a great team in front of us,” Sullivan said. “They have a great defense, great goaltender, and absolutely amazing offense. We’re going into their barn, they watched this game and know what we’re all about, so I expect a lot of energy coming out of the Rochester side.”
For a young team without much playoff experience, Swarm veteran Ryan Benesch provided just what Minnesota needed him to Sunday afternoon going up against the seasoned Toronto Rock – which finished the regular season with the NLL’s best record. The Kitchener, Ontario native posted a game-high nine points (3g, 6), which is the highest scoring total for Benesch since 2011.
After being selected fourth overall in the 2012 NLL Entry Draft, Shayne Jackson has become a key player for Minnesota. Last weekend the Limestone College product set a franchise record for goals scored in a rookie season at 63 and followed that effort up by shattering another record in the Swarm’s monumental win over Toronto – goals scored by a rookie in a playoff game. Jackson found the back of the net four times and dished out three assists to tie a career-high of seven points. The last time the rookie forward recorded seven points, Minnesota scored a franchise record 21 goals.
Less than a week after being named the NLL’s Transition Player of the Week for the fourth-straight time, Jordan MacIntosh flashed his versatility for the young Swarm once again. MacIntosh scored six points (4g, 2a), scooped up nine loose balls, and won 72% of his faceoffs. Minnesota has a 5-1 record this season when MacIntosh records at least five points.
Being held to one of their lowest scoring outputs of the year due to outstanding goaltending from Tyler Carlson, Rock players’ frustration surfaced in the fourth quarter when they started a scrum with Swarm defenseman Mitch Belisle and transition player David Earl. Carlson made a career-high 54 saves in the game en route to a .831 save percentage.
After winning a league-high 10 games in the regular season, Rock goalie Nick Rose was beaten time and time again by the high-powered Swarm attack. Minnesota has now gotten past a 10-win goaltender in the playoffs for the second-straight season.
“Our offensive players watch video and study opposing goaltenders’ tendencies constantly,” Sullivan said. “They truly leave those sessions with growth, want to be better, and do everything they can to get better. Rose is a great goalie and has had a fantastic season to help get the Rock to where they are, but everyone has their weaknesses and we were able to get to him tonight.”
Minnesota’s extensive video sessions are paying off as the team peppered the net with goals. Second year forward Josh Gillam scored his first career hat trick. Matisz also had a hat trick to go along with two assists, while forward Jay Card scored four points (2g, 2a). Many of those scoring opportunities were generated by feeds from Swarm captain Callum Crawford, who dished out a game-high of six assists.
“This feels great,” Sullivan said. “We didn’t expect to come into Toronto and win by that kind of a margin, because they’re a great team that’s well coached, but sometimes the ball drops for us so it was great to see our guys execute the gameplan and get rewarded for it.”