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Looking up: Mammoth and Knighthawks both need a win

02/26/2013, 1:00pm EST
By NLL.com's Mammoth beat writer Nick Salen and Knighthawks beat writer Travis Larner

Colorado's Grant, Jr. faces Rochester, his long-time former team

The Colorado Mammoth (2-5) host the Rochester Knighthawks (3-5) at Pepsi Center on Saturday at 9pm ET. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)

The Colorado Mammoth (2-5) host the Rochester Knighthawks (3-5) at Pepsi Center on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET as both teams try to move up from the bottom of the standings. Watch live on Altitude2 and YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.

Colorado is coming off their third-straight loss and will now rely on youth in net after releasing veteran Matt Roik earlier this week. Roik, who was signed by the Washington Stealth on Friday, ended his run with Colorado with a 2-2 record, 13.66 goals against average and .720 save percentage.

“It just didn’t work out,” said Mammoth head coach Bob Hamley. “We struggled a little bit with our goals against and we just felt like we needed to make a move. The future for Dan Lewis and Tye Belanger is being sped up, the future is now and we're looking forward to seeing them perform."

Belanger, who served as backup for six games last season, was activated from the Physically Unable to Perform List while fellow young netminder Dan Lewis is expected to start in net for Colorado this week.

Despite the loss and change on roster, Hamley noted the team will roll into Saturday on a higher note against a Rochester team that mirrors Colorado’s status.

“We're playing another desperate team,” Hamley added. “Just from what I’ve read, they aren’t happy where they are at, and obviously we aren’t either. We want to be better at home and we got to keep getting better each week. I thought there was a lot of positives to pull from the Philadelphia [loss], and we're going to take those positives into Saturday.”

Colorado’s offense has no lack of reliable shooters, but overall has had trouble finding twine in recent outings. Despite hitting 74 percent of their total shots on goal, the Mammoth have failed to net points at critical points in the game, having to rely on the defense as the clock winds down.

"If you don’t play a hundred percent on the weekend, you're going to lose no matter where you are,” said Mammoth forward John Grant, Jr. “We're going through the same sort of thing here in Denver. We're scratching our heads; 15, 16, 17 thousand people and we're laying eggs. We're concentrating on our squad right now and trying to get back in the win column."

Grant, Jr. led all players in scoring in both of Colorado’s wins over his former team in 2012. Junior admitted that playing against Rochester has some extra incentive, but without coming together on the floor, it would be all for nothing, much like any other game.

"We're nowhere near where we want to be, but I think at times this season we're making strides in the right direction, it just seems like we're not putting it all together or putting four quarters together,” Grant added. “We just have to focus on playing a more consistent 60 minutes and stop giving a quarter here or a run there. We're just going to focus on playing our best and try to play more of our best throughout the whole game.”

The defending champion Knighthawks also find themselves at the bottom of their division during their up-and-down season. After a three-game losing streak, Rochester won three straight to even the record at .500 before dropping two more games heading into this weekend.

“We’re looking for a little more consistency in our lineup as far as performance,” said Rochester head coach Mike Hasen. “We have moments where we are a dynamite team and then we have pretty long lapses where we’re not and we sort of lose a little bit of compete level and stuff like that. We’re just trying to get everybody on the same page, pulling the same rope in the same direction at the same time.”

Coincidentally, the 3-5 record is the same way the Knighthawks started the 2012 season, which ended with them hoisting the Champion’s Cup. However, another rough start early in the regular season has some wondering if this is the same team that won the title less than a year ago.

“We play good at times and bad at others,” said Knighthawks forward Cory Vitarelli. “When we talk about the halfway point, really for us it has to be sooner rather than later. You put yourself behind the eight-ball every weekend that goes by and we don’t get a win.”

Vitarelli is only two games removed from a strong performance against the Buffalo Bandits where he scored four goals and earned a spot on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays. However, after scoring six goals in a loss to Buffalo on Feb. 16 and eight in a loss to Philadelphia on Feb. 23, Rochester’s offense has, according to forward Dan Dawson, “let our team down.”

The defensive unit has continued to give the Knighthawks an opportunity to win each game. Rochester has given up no more than 10 goals in a  game over the past five weeks, six if you don’t count an empty netter that Toronto scored with five seconds left in the fourth quarter of an 11-7 win on Jan. 26. Two-time NLL Goaltender of the Year Matt Vinc led the league in saves (344), save percentage (.813) and goals-against average (9.97) entering Week #9.

“[Vinc] is giving us games to win and we just haven’t had a chance to have his back,” Dawson said.

“We always say we’ve got to hold guys to eight or nine goals,” said defenseman Ian Llord. “But at the same time, we’re letting in a couple of goals in the first and second quarter that we don’t think is going to bite us in the butt at the end of the game, but it is right now.”

Facing the Mammoth (2-5) this weekend may give the Knighthawks’ offense a chance to take a step in the right direction. Colorado released goaltender Matt Roik, who earned the job after Chris Levis was released at the start of the season. Second-year netminders Dan Lewis and Tye Belanger will now be relied upon to carry the load in the net, although neither has started and played an entire game in their career.

“I guess it might be a little bit in the back of our minds,” said Hasen about the Colorado goaltending situation. “We’re more focused on what we need to do to be successful. We have a game plan going in and we’ll focus on that as well.”

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