Watson Whips Rock Back into Playoff Race
by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online
|Bob Watson has 47 and 38 saves in Toronto's last two
games, both wins, as the Rock vies for the likely fourth playoff
spot in the NLL's East Division. Toronto plays back-to-back road
games at Calgary and Edmonton on Friday and Saturday,
© Graig Abel Photography
The battle for the last playoff spot in the National Lacrosse League's East Division is on, and Toronto is building momentum following consecutive victories.
With only four weekends remaining in the regular season, the Rock (4-7) is vying against Rochester (4-6) and Philadelphia (4-7) for the fourth berth in the East, given the unlikely collapses of New York (6-5), Boston (7-4) and defending champion Buffalo (8-3).
A Rock franchise that dominated the NLL, winning five titles from 1999 to 2005, is in danger of missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season, following first-round playoff losses in 2006 and 2007.
Veteran Toronto goaltender Bob Watson, owner of five championship rings, kept hope alive March 14, shutting the door on Boston's offense with 47 saves in a 9-8 victory that ended the Blazers' five-game win streak.
"I thought we played our best effort," Watson said. "We started to get things on track against Boston and we continued it, obviously, against Rochester.
"We made a lot of changes in the offseason and we knew it would take a little while for things to come together. Obviously, we didn't expect it to take as long as it did, but hopefully, we've got things turned around now and we look forward to having it progress."
Four days after Watson's bosses acquired a new backup for him, Steve "Chugger'' Dietrich, Watson put the brakes on Rochester's revived offense. He limited Shawn Evans to one goal on nine shots, Gary Gait to one goal on seven shots and Shawn Williams to one goal on five shots. Only Jason Henhawk was a multi-goal scorer against Watson.
The battle of veteran netminders -- Pat O'Toole suited up for Rochester -- produced 38 saves apiece, with Watson making 17 in the second quarter of the 16-10 victory, which was powered on the offensive end by Louis Ratcliff's five goals and Luke Wiles' hat trick.
While admitting that his former junior lacrosse teammate is competing for time in the cage, Watson welcomed Dietrich, a two-time NLL Goaltender of the Year.
"I know what Steve brought to the table," Watson said. "Obviously, he's a good goaltender. He's going to push [me], but he's also there to make the team better. He's a great guy to get along with, we're so excited to have him in Toronto."
Although there are 25 days remaining in the regular season, the Rock already projects a playoff mentality.
"We all know what is at stake," Watson said. "Our poor start put us in a bad situation, so we have to win games. That's the bottom line. We can't afford any more losses.
"You can see it in the guys' faces and how we're preparing, and a little bit of a different atmosphere in the dressing room. Definitely it has been a good thing for us."
Among the adjustments is a defensive switch from coach Glenn Clark's style to that of Jamie Batley, who replaced Clark when the Rock opened 1-2.
"Glenn is more of a 'we have a style to play,'" Watson said. "He broke down different players and what we want to do against them.
"And Jamie has a different philosophy for every game coming in. He tries to see the strengths and weakness of the team we're playing against and tries to match up and have a strategy in place for that.
"Each one coaches a little different. Each is successful and has proven to be successful as long as you get everybody on that same page, and that's been the key the last couple games. We all seem to be on the same wavelength, and that has helped on the floor."
Batley also is more aggressive in transition, which has prompted Watson to follow suit in his outlet passing.
"My first look is up the floor when I collect a loose ball and I have the green light to throw the pass," he said. "And if not, I go with a safe outlet. It is definitely a part of the game Jamie has pushed."
Prior to the Boston game, Watson had no assists. Since then, he has three helpers, including a pair in the same sequence: to Jeff Gilbert and Gilbert to Craig Conn for the goal.
Watson celebrates his 39th birthday April 6, yet the effects of age and a steady diet of high-powered shots at all body parts -- never mind the padding -- has left him remarkably unscathed.
"I'm fine, no different than any other year," he said. "You know, there are more bumps and bruises this time of year. But so far, so good. My body seems to be holding up well and, hopefully, it will continue to as we progress along with the season."
The next step is a weekend trip to Alberta, starting Friday at West Division leader Calgary (8-2), and concluding Saturday against Dietrich's former teammates in Edmonton (3-8).
Depending on the outcomes, along with the fortunes of Philadelphia and Rochester, Toronto might retain playoff viability or turn its sights on 2010.
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