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Role reversal: Knighthawks seek first win against upstart Stealth

01/29/2013, 11:15pm EST
By NLL.com's Knighthawks beat writer Travis Larner and Stealth beat writer Ben Tole

Rochester and Washington face off in rematch of season opener

The Rochester Knighthawks (0-3) host the Washington Stealth (3-2) for a rematch of the 2013 NLL regular season opener on Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET at The Blue Cross Arena. (Photo: Richard Olson)

The defending champion Rochester Knighthawks (0-3) will be seeking their first win of the 2013 National Lacrosse League season when they host the Washington Stealth (3-2) at The Blue Cross Arena on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET in a rematch of their season opener. Watch the game live on the NLL on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.

Starting with their 13-12 road loss to the Stealth in the final minutes of the opener at Comcast Arena on Jan. 5, the Knighthawks are off to their worst start since 2009, when they began the year with four straight losses. However, no one in the locker room is ready to hit the panic button just yet.

“We’re 0-3, but in a couple of weeks, we could be 3-3,” said Knighthawks forward Cody Jamieson. “In our dressing room, no one is hitting the panic button. It’s a long season, we’re three games in. There’s no need to write the season off. We like our team. Why would we push the panic button when we know what we want and we like what we got?”

“We’re not questioning what we have in the dressing room,” said teammate Dan Dawson. “We just got to be better.”

According to many of the players, chemistry, not talent, is what the Knighthawks are lacking right now. Dawson knows they cannot wait much longer to turn things around.

“We have to press the issue with a little urgency,” Dawson said. “The first quarter of the season is over and to start 0-4 is not even an option. We need to get a win. We’re working hard, but like [head coach Mike Hasen] said, it just comes down to execution.”

To help the team come together, practice was delayed from its usual Wednesday night until Friday. On Friday, the team with go through a full practice rather than a shootaround, and on Wednesday, the team took part in some team bonding, including some games of laser tag.

“We’re just trying to change the routine up a little bit,” Hasen said. “We just need to take a little bit of a break and refresh our minds. We’re going to come together [on Wednesday night] and do a couple of fun things as a group. Then we’re going to bear down on Friday and hit each other as opposed to just shooting some balls.”

Rochester was on the losing end of two one-goal heartbreakers in the first two weeks. After the opener in Everett, Wash., the Knighthawks dropped a 14-13 decision to Buffalo in the last 12 seconds. Last weekend, they lost an ugly game to Toronto, scoring only one goal in the second half.

“We've got to learn from our mistakes,” Hasen said. “That’s one thing we talked about as a group, we've got to take the lessons we learned in the first three games here and change our fortunes moving forward against Washington.”

Rochester’s defense has improved each week of the season. Against Washington in Week #1, the Stealth outshot them 64-47, forcing goaltender Matt Vinc to make 51 saves. Vinc’s performance earned him the NLL’s Defensive Player of the Week award in the losing effort. Since then, the defense has tightened up, limiting Buffalo to 51 shots on goal and Toronto to 43 shots.

However, the offense has taken an unexpected turn for the worse, with only seven goals scored against the Rock after averaging over 12 in each of the first two games. Rochester scored only two even strength goals against Toronto, with three coming shorthanded and two on the power play.

Dawson, a former NLL MVP, has struggled with his new team. He has eight points (1+7) in three games and was held off the scoresheet against the Rock. Dawson has just goal on 16 shots this year.

“We struggled in the second half of the game on Saturday, but we just haven’t executed as well as we’d like to,” Dawson said. “Obviously, we haven’t buried our chances. Our shooting percentage is very low, but it’s going to come. We’re going to shoot our way out of this one.”

“We just need to be a little bit smarter with the ball and in our shot selection and what we’re doing off ball a little bit more,” Hasen added.

Dawson also explained that the offense needs to do a better job in the “dirty areas” of the floor. By setting harder picks and crashing into the middle of the defense, the Knighthawks can also force the opponents into more penalties and give their defense a rest while on the power play.

Last time around, Rochester was without Casey Powell, who missed the season opener with a calf injury. Powell led the Knighthawks’ offense against the Bandits with six points (2+4) the following week. He is three assists shy of 350 after surpassing the 600-point mark against Buffalo.

While the Knighthawks struggle to find their groove, this weekend the Stealth will try to match their win total from last season when they posted a league-worst 4-12 record in 2012. After missing the playoffs last year, the Stealth are atop the West Division this season.

One of the main reasons for the Stealth’s turnaround is the rejuvenation of their offense, currently ranked second in the NLL with an average of 13.2 goals per game.

Forward Rhys Duch has been the Stealth’s biggest contributor, as he leads the NLL with 14 goals and ranks third in the league with 27 points (14+13). Duch has registered a hat trick in four of the team’s five games, including six points (3+3) against the Knighthawks in the opener.

“He’s a level-headed player who has matured a ton this past year and he brings the quarterback to the [offense],” said Stealth transition player Bob Snider. “You can feel when guys are playing him that they respect him quite a bit.”

Stealth forward Lewis Ratcliff, who for the most part had been kept in check by opposing teams, caught fire last weekend by scoring a hat trick in both games after scoring just three goals in his first three games.

Washington’s Athan Iannucci, Cliff Smith and Dean Hill round out the top five Stealth scorers, contributing 22 of the team’s 66 goals, adding offensive balance and depth that the team needs.

The Stealth also appear to have their starting goaltender, Tyler Richards, back in good health after he played all 120 minutes of their two games this past weekend. Richards was instrumental in keeping the Stealth in the game early against the Edmonton Rush last weekend.

Hall is expecting to see a different Knighthawks team than the one he saw in early January.

“The first game we played them, Casey Powell wasn’t in the lineup so obviously they are going to have a little different look there,” he said. “We expect that they’re starting to mesh and they’ve had three games together with [Dawson], Casey and the other new guys in that offense.”

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