The Rochester Knighthawks will host the Toronto Rock on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. ET at The Blue Cross Arena. Watch live on TSN2 in Canada, ESPN3 in the U.S. and YouTube outside of North America. (Photo: Graig Abel)
It’s fair to say that the defending champion Rochester Knighthawks did not envision the start of the 2013 National Lacrosse League regular season going the way it has so far.
After two blown fourth-quarter leads during two one-goal losses to Washington and Buffalo, the Knighthawks (0-2) are off to their worst start since 2009 when they began the season with four consecutive losses. On Saturday, they host the Toronto Rock (2-1), a team who Mike Hasen has a record of 1-7 against in his first two seasons as Rochester’s head coach.
Watch the 7:30 p.m. ET game live on TSN2 in Canada, ESPN3 in the U.S. and on the NLL on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network outside North America.
“They’re all clutch guys, and they all play well within the system together,” Hasen said. “Front door, back door, they’re all comfortable with each other. Over the years, and even now, they got a dynamite goaltender. Put that into the mix, they’re always a tough team whenever they step onto the floor wherever they step onto the floor.
“We’ve been close. We got lucky I think last year on them a little bit. Every game is going to be tough. We just have to make sure we are at our best.”
The only game Hasen and the Knighthawks have been able to overcome the Rock was in last year’s East Division Final. For the first time in Rochester’s history, the Knighthawks earned a playoff win in Toronto, defeating the Rock 17-13 before winning the Champion’s Cup at home.
“It’s going to be a very tough battle, even if Toronto is playing a Friday night game,” said Hasen, referring to Toronto’s Friday home matchup against Minnesota. “It doesn’t matter. They always come into our barn and give us their best game. We got to be on our best and then some to come out on top.”
However, prior to 2011, the Rock were 0-15 in regular season games at The Blue Cross Arena. In the past two seasons, they have won all three contests in Rochester by a combined score of 38-22.
“It's a different type of barn,” said Rock forward Josh Sanderson. “It's always tough when you go to Rochester. It's always a hard-earned win if you can earn it.”
In losses, Rochester has held the lead heading into the fourth quarter. They led Washington 9-8 and Buffalo 11-10, only to be outscored by a combined total of 9-5 in the final 15 minutes.
After the loss to the Bandits on Jan. 19, although not happy with the outcome, Hasen said his defense improved “by tenfold” compared to its effort versus the Stealth.
“We were not really satisfied, but we were happy with the way we played,” he said. “From game one to game two, I thought we were a lot better, a lot more confident. We just need to keep getting better.”
Rochester goaltender Matt Vinc was stellar in the net last time he faced Toronto. In the semifinal win on May 12, 2012, he made 51 saves and posted a .797 save percentage, the same box score that won him NLL’s Week #1 Defensive Player of the Week award after the loss to Washington. Vinc is only 36 minutes away from 5,500 career minutes played and 40 saves shy of 3,500.
Offensively, Casey Powell showed very few signs of rust against Buffalo. He led all Rochester scorers with six points (2+4). It was his first game back in the NLL since the 2011 season, but the former NLL MVP looked like he hadn’t lost a step.
“It’s certainly good to be back,” Powell said. “Now it’s all about working on chemistry and playing harder and playing better and starting to mesh with the boys and hopefully turning around the end result.”
Powell noted that the offense has “a long way to go” until everyone is on the same page.
“I saw a lot of positive things we did out there,” he said. “I think more than chemistry we need to just loosen up a little bit and make less mistakes. Buffalo put a lot of pressure on us early on and we didn’t handle it the way that we really wanted to.”
The Bandits jumped out to a 3-0 lead before the Knighthawks responded to tie the game at 3-3 heading into the second quarter. Powell scored the first goal of the game to break the seal on goaltender Anthony Cosmo. He nearly finished with a hat trick, but a diving shot was ruled to be a crease violation and Hasen had already used his challenge for the half.
Powell did break one milestone in his season debut. His third helper of the game – an assist to Dan Dawson in the third quarter – was his 600th point of his career.
With Powell now in the lineup, it appears Rochester will be forced to sit one of its forwards each game. Drawing the short stick last weekend was Mike Accursi. Hasen did not hint towards who would sit against Toronto, but on Saturday stated Craig Point’s faceoff ability helps his cause.
“I'm looking forward to it, they're one of our natural rivals, we enjoy playing against Rochester,” said Rock general manager Terry Sanderson. “You know you are going to get a full effort from them. It's a big game for us as well as for them.”
For the Rock, this weekend will be their second back-to-back mission in just 12 days, however this was downplayed by both Sandersons during Wednesday’s coaches media conference call.
“I believe with back-to-back games, especially if you struggle in the first one you want to get right back at it,” Terry Sanderson said. “We've been fairly successful in back-to-back games [in the past], so I don't think it's really a big issue from our standpoint.”
In Toronto's first back-to-back weekend, the Rock came away with two victories against the Edmonton Rush and Calgary Roughnecks in Week #2.
“They're tough on the body no doubt,” Josh Sanderson said. “But on some token, your sticks are a little more ready.”
Through three games, the Rock have had a relatively balanced attack offensively. Colin Doyle (2 + 12), Garret Billings (3 + 11) and Kasey Beirnes (6 + 4) each have 10 or more points. Josh Sanderson (5 + 3) and Stephan Leblanc (4 + 4), each with eight points, are close behind.
“I think it's just the way we are structured,” said the Rock’s GM. “We are a group that likes to move the ball around. We feel very comfortable with our offense.”