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Buffalo Bandits end Toronto Rock’s championship dreams

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The 2021-2022 Toronto Rock have a lot to be proud of. But dreams of a National Lacrosse League championship are on hold for another year.

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The Buffalo Bandits defeated the Rock 10-9 at FirstOntario Centre on Saturday to win the NLL East Division series 2-0. The Bandits advance to their second consecutive final and are heavily favored to win their first championship since 2008.

For captain Challen Rogers and the Rock, it was a tough pill to swallow.

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“It’s tough to look around and see everybody’s faces looking to the ground because this team cares for one another,” he said. “It’s an emotional loss.”

The Rock battled them to the end. No matter how strong the Bandits were in all aspects of the game, Toronto found a way to make them sweat. In fact, this outstanding series could have been extended to at least an overtime.

Dan Craig, who just missed scoring a late goal to tie the game last Sunday, beat Matt Vinc with what could have been Toronto’s 10th goal, if the clock hadn’t struck zero first.

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“A couple of hundredths of a second here and we find a way to tie it up,” Rock coach Matt Sawyer said.

The Bandits held a 9-5 lead midway through the fourth quarter, built by an outstanding defense, top-level goaltending from future hall-of-famer Matt Vinc, and an offense that forced Toronto goaltender Nick Rose to play arguably his best game of the season.

But the Rock didn’t quit, getting two late goals from Rob Hellyer and one from Craig to bring the game back to 9-8. After Chase Fraser scored to restore a two-goal lead for the Bandits with just over three minutes to play, Tom Schreiber answered with just 45 seconds left to create the last-minute push.

The killer blow may have been a too-many-men penalty in the third quarter which Chris Cloutier made the Rock play for. Or it could have been a number of other things throughout the 120 minutes of outstanding lacrosse in this series.

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“There were a lot of ‘what-ifs’ over the two games,” Rock head coach Matt Sawyer said. “But we’re a group that continues to get itself off the mat. We were down 9-5 in the fourth and found a way to claw back.”

“Sometimes we have to have these moments and taste how close we are and figure out how to get it done. We had very good group of guys who did everything they could to be successful.”

The Bandits never trailed, holding a 3-2 halftime lead and a 6-4 lead after three quarters. Cloutier and Fraser scored twice as did Dhane Smith and Josh Byrne. Connor Fields and Kyle Buchanan added singles. Vinc ended with 42 saves.

Schreiber ended with a hat trick for the Rock. Josh Jubenville, Latrell Harris, and Brandon Slade all scored one each. The defense played very well for much of the game and Rose ended with 39 saves, including one where he robbed Smith on a breakaway.

Despite the loss, the Rock have a lot of successes to build on for next season.

“It’s been a special year for this group and I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Rock captain Challen Rogers said. “All year, we’ve found ways to win. We’ve been down in the fourth quarter and this team has stuck together and played for each other.

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