The Rochester Knighthawks will defend their title in the 2013 NLL Championship Game on the road next weekend after beating the visiting Minnesota Swarm with a thrilling 12-10 playoff win in the East Division Final. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
The Rochester Knighthawks will defend their title in the 2013 NLL Championship Game on the road next weekend after beating the visiting Minnesota Swarm with a thrilling 12-10 playoff win in the East Division Final at The Blue Cross Arena on Saturday evening.
“We knew at the end of the season that we put ourselves in that predicament that we wouldn’t be able to host,” said Knighthawks forward Cody Jamieson. “It feels good to be back in the Championship Game. I wouldn’t say we’re defending last year’s championship because our name plate is never coming off. I’m looking at it as another shot of putting our name plate on there.”
The Swarm took their only lead of the game with four consecutive goals bridging the third and fourth quarters. Minnesota’s fifth straight goal, scored by Matt Gibson, was overturned after a successful challenge by Rochester head coach Mike Hasen. The shift in momentum was all the Knighthawks needed to spark the come-from-behind victory.
“We’re a veteran team; we’ve got a lot of guys who have been through these battles before,” said Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen. “We just kept our composure. We knew that if we stick to it, we honestly did believe. Say what you will, but the 26 guys in this dressing room do believe every time we step on the floor, we are going to do good things.”
Down 9-7 midway through the fourth quarter, the Knighthawks rattled off five unanswered goals in a span of 5:24 to regain the lead. Johnny Powless and Craig Point drew the game even before Jamieson, who was a game-time decision with a leg injury, scored the eventual game-winner.
“I knew pretty much after I missed the end of last week, I was going to do whatever it took to get back in,” Jamieson said. “It was tough not being able to run around and shoot around and have to stay off of it all week. Whatever I had to do, I did it.”
With 1:40 remaining and a 10-9 lead, Point scored his fourth goal, tying his single-game career high and matching his output in the regular season finale that helped them make the playoffs. Only 26 seconds later, Jimmy Purves scored unassisted to go up 12-9.
“They just said at the start of the game, we need our veteran guys to step up if other guys can’t,” said Point, who was named the 2008 NLL Rookie of the Year with the Swarm. “I know all year this year I haven’t played that much, but I’ve been working hard and our team’s been working hard at practice. Come the weekend, we come to work hard every time. It pays off.”
Powless, who finished with a hat trick after being held without a goal in the previous two games, scored twice to give the Knighthawks an early lead in the first quarter. Rochester native Joe Walters added a goal of his own 20 seconds later to put Rochester up 3-0.
Matt Vinc, who won his third Goaltender of the Year Award earlier in the week, held the Swarm scoreless in the opening quarter. Although he finished with a season-low 25 saves, Vinc credits the defenseman in front of him for limiting the Swarm to only 35 shots on goal, tied for the fewest he’s faced all season.
“We didn’t want it to get out of hand like it did last weekend in Toronto,” said Vinc in reference to Minnesota’s dominating 20-11 road win over the top-seeded Rock. “I think we did a great job dictating our pace of the game. They have a lot of great athletes and we didn’t want them to get the momentum. They did there for a little bit in the fourth, but we responded well.”
The Swarm scored five of the seven goals in the second quarter and tied the game at 5-5 before halftime. Point scored Rochester’s only goals of the quarter at 6:35 and 9:10, but Ryan Benesch and Jordan MacIntosh scored respectively in the final minute of the half to tie the contest.
Dan Dawson and Mike Accursi each scored once to take a two-goal cushion, but Benesch cut the deficit to 7-6 with his third of four goals.
Jamieson finished with a team-high five points (1+4) for the Knighthawks, followed by four points from Point (4-0) and Powless (3+1).
“That’s the one thing we preach every time; it’s not going to be on [Jamieson’s] shoulders, it’s not going to be on Dawson’s shoulders, it’s got to come from everybody,” Hasen said. “Tonight was [Point and Powless’] turn. That’s what we need every night.”
In a similar fashion as the 2012 season, the Knighthawks built off a slow start to the regular season and began playing their best lacrosse in the playoffs, and now have a chance to win their fourth title in franchise history.
“Going there for a second year is pretty hard, I know that,” Point said. “It takes a lot out of you working all week and working out, then going on the weekends. You don’t get too much of a break. But once you hold that Cup up in the end like we did last year—and hopefully we can repeat it—feels awesome.”
The Swarm struggled in the game’s early stages, as Rochester held Minnesota scoreless for the first 20:35 of the game. It was Swarm rookie Kiel Matisz who got the visitors on the board first, cutting Rochester’s lead to 3-1.
Asked about not allowing an early scoreless drought get to his team, Swarm head coach Joe Sullivan had high praise for his players.
“They’re resilient,” he said. “These guys have learned. We had our losses early, we know what it’s like to lose and we know what it’s like to bounce back and get better and that’s what this team has done.
“Look for us to do a [heck] of a lot more in the future because this isn’t sitting well with anybody.”
Rochester maintained a two-goal lead through most of the second quarter until the Swarm’s Ryan Benesch and Jordan MacIntosh scored two goals 16 seconds apart in the final minute of the first half, tying the game at five heading into halftime.
Tyler Carlson got the start in goal for Minnesota, despite the fact that Sullivan inked Evan Kirk to start on the official roster.
“I wanted to play Evan and give him the opportunity, but Evan actually came to me and said he thinks ‘TC’, Tyler Carlson, should play,” Sullivan said. “Again, character and personality. That’s a decision that they made and we went with Tyler.”
“We feel like anyone does, whether young or old, a defeat is a defeat,” Sullivan said. “We competed. A couple of those calls go a little differently and I think the momentum changes. What we thought to be 10-7, the goal that got called back, that’s a bone of contention with myself. It goes to 9-7 and they feed off the momentum of that call. It’s just disappointing that that call was made. But it was made and we’re going to have to live with it.”
“There’s nothing we can do about that, we need to play through it. That’s what character is all about and that’s what our team is built on.”
“It’s the wrong call, in my opinion. The rule says, since it was called a goal [on the field], it has to be evident enough to be overturned and I don’t feel that it was. Sour grapes are what they are and we’ll live with that.”
Down by just one goal with under two minutes to play, Minnesota was killing a Jeff Gilbert unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when rookie transition player Brock Sorensen made a great play intercepting a Rochester pass with just over 30 seconds left in the penalty. Instead of killing the remaining penalty time, Sorensen opted to shoot on the fast break, his shot blocked by a Knighthawk forward. Rochester came down the floor and cashed in just as the penalty expired, earning the all-important insurance goal that proved to be the game winner.
Sullivan stopped short of criticizing his young player for that decision.
“That’s maybe a bad decision on his part, but he might have seen something different than what I saw,” Sullivan said. “I’m not about to jump on one of my players for a decision he could see better than I could.”
Minnesota was once again the youngest team in the league this year; 16 of their 23 players are in their first or second year in the league.
Swarm interim captain Callum Crawford led all scorers with eight points (2+6), carrying the weight of this young team on his shoulders along with fellow veteran Ryan Benesch who had seven points (4+3).
“I think this game was a lot like our season,” Crawford said. “There’s just so much character in this room. We were down early in the season and getting to watch a team grow from an older player’s perspective is something I’ve never done before. It was great to be a part of that because you could see the team mature as a group. Not just the young guys but even the older guys stepping into other roles, because we’re not necessarily older guys if you put us on any other team.
“I think tonight was really disappointing for everybody.”
Benesch appeared to put the team on his back in the fourth quarter as they took the lead and appeared to take control of the game. His goal early in the fourth quarter to tie the game at seven was an outstanding individual effort in which we simply outworked Knighthawks defenseman Tyler Burton and freed himself for an open shot in front.
Benesch was crushed after such a dramatic defeat.
“It’s definitely not a good feeling,” he said. “We were that close and a couple breaks went their way and [Vinc] started stopping the ball when they needed him to. It was just too little, too late I guess.”
Like Crawford, Benesch emerged into a leadership role by virtue of his age and had the opportunity to watch his young teammates grow and improve.
“It’s amazing. These guys came in and they might have been rookies, but they didn’t play like rookies, they played like seasoned vets,” Benesch said. “I’m proud of each and every one of them and we’re just going to get better from here.”
After the game, Benesch had a clear message for Swarm fans.
“Stay tuned,” he said. “We’re going to be great for years to come and I just hope that I can be a part of it.”
Looking ahead, Swarm fans have much to be excited about. After having four first-round selections in last year’s NLL Entry draft, they have the same luxury this year, including both the first and second overall selection.
“It’s the brightest future,” Sullivan said. “You can look at any other team in the league and they’d love to be where we are. We’ve got a great team here that just came a couple goals short of going to the Champion’s Cup.”
In the fourth quarter with 7:46 remaining, game officials used instant replay to review a goal scored by Minnesota’s Matt Gibson. The Crew Chief deemed the shooter was in the crease prior to the ball crossing the goal line. The "shooter" is defined as a player who has possession of the ball. Gibson was deemed to be a shooter when he gained possession of the ball behind the net, steps into the crease, and then steps out. This is reviewable by the Crew Chief as per NLL Rule 17.81 – Criteria of a Challenge.
Notes: An NLL team hasn’t won the Champion’s Cup in consecutive years since the Toronto Rock won back-to-back championships in 2002 and 2003. A different team has won the title in each of the last five seasons, a streak that will end this year. Rochester has a 3-4 record all-time in championship games with title wins in 1997, 2007 and 2012.