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Stealth and Knighthawks ready for takeoff in NLL Championship Game

05/06/2013, 12:45pm EDT
By NLL.com's Stealth beat writer Ben Tole and Knighthawks beat writer Travis Larner

In their third title game in the last four years, Washington hosts defending champs Rochester for the Champion's Cup live on CBS Sports Network

The Washington Stealth host the defending champion Rochester Knighthawks in the 2013 NLL Championship Game presented by Reebok on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET at Langley Events Centre. Watch it live on CBS Sports Network. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)

The Washington Stealth, making their third title game appearance in the last four years, host the defending champion Rochester Knighthawks in the 2013 NLL Championship Game presented by Reebok on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET at Langley Events Centre in British Columbia. Watch the game live exclusively on CBS Sports Network as the teams battle for the right to hoist the Champion's Cup.

After winning their third West Division title in the last four years, the Stealth are seeking their second championship in franchise history after winning in 2010. To bring the Champion’s Cup back to Washington, the Stealth will look to ride their high-powered offense, which has scored an average of over 14 goals per game over the last three weeks of the regular season and playoffs.

Last weekend, the Stealth used a balanced offensive attack to eliminate the West’s top-seeded Calgary Roughnecks as eight different players found the scoresheet.

The charge was led by 2013 NLL First Team All-Pro Rhys Duch, who led the NLL with 45 goals during the regular season, and Athan Iannucci as they both led the way for the Stealth with seven points (3+4) each.  

Brett Bucktooth and defenseman Justin Salt also turned in multi-goal games by both scoring twice while goalie Tyler Richards made 39 saves on 52 shots and was big down the stretch for the Stealth by holding the Roughnecks scoreless for the final eight minutes of the game.

One of the most competitive seasons in league history will end how it began. The two teams opened the year with the Faceoff 2013 season opener on January 5, which resulted in a 13-12 victory for the Stealth at Comcast Arena. One month later, Rochester returned the favor at home by beating Washington by a score of 7-6 in a defensive struggle on February 2.

While this will be the third meeting between the teams this season, both games were played in the first five weeks, thus Stealth head coach Chris Hall is preparing his team for a much different Knighthawks squad.

“It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other,” Hall said. “We played both games early in the season for the most part. We’ve been following each other via video. Both teams have changed a bit. Both have improved throughout the season and I think both teams are peaking right now.”

Nine members of the Stealth’s 2010 championship squad will be on the roster when they look for another ring on Saturday including Second Team All-Pro defenseman Mike Grimes who was the runner-up for the 2013 NLL Defensive Player of the Year.

“[2010] was such a roller coaster battle,” Duch said. “I think we were down 10-6 at one point and we ended up coming back to win it. That is going to help preparation, being level-headed. Teams in this league have been so evenly matched this year. I can’t imagine it being a lobsided game for either team this weekend.”

The Stealth’s home game at the state-of-the-art Langley Events Centre will mark the second time they have hosted an NLL game at the arena as they played a preseason game there in December of 2011, the first and only sold-out preseason game in league history to date. As of Friday, only a few hundred tickets remained for the Championship Game.

Iannucci and 2010 NLL Championship Game MVP Lewis Ratcliff both have experience playing at the arena during the offseason.

“It’s going to be a matter of keeping your composure and who can take the ups and downs the best,” Duch said. “Our experience is going to help with that.”

Meanwhile, Knighthawks veteran forward Mike Accursi put it best when he summed up their 2013 season as a “rollercoaster ride.”

While adversity has been a constant enemy for Rochester this season, they have yet to back down from a challenge, and will now have the opportunity to successfully defend their championship. The home team has won the title game for five-straight years while the NLL hasn’t had a back-to-back champion since the Toronto Rock in 2002 and 2003 so the odds are against them. But then again, the team has faced adversity all season as teams have targeted the defending champs.

The Knighthawks, fresh off of their 2012 title victory, began this year with one of the worst starts in franchise history with an 0-3 record. They would respond by winning the next three, and fast forwarding to their dramatic one-goal win in the regular season finale on the road against the Buffalo Bandits, they earned their spot in the postseason.

After winning only three of their eight home games in the regular season, Rochester rattled off a pair of two-goal victories at The Blue Cross Arena in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Trailing 9-7 in the fourth quarter of the East Division Final to the visiting Minnesota Swarm, the Knighthawks went on a five-goal run to regain the lead and punch their ticket to the 2013 Champion’s Cup final.

“We definitely had another up-and-down kind of season,” Accursi said. “But we believed in each other and we believed in the guys we had in the locker room, that once we found our groove and found what was working for us, we’d be fine. Once we finally figured that out, we were a tough team down the stretch.”

Knighthawks goaltender Matt Vinc earned a season-high 51 saves in the season-opening loss to Washington. Rochester, who allowed the fewest goals per game in 2013, is averaging only nine goals against in their previous three games.

Rochester’s defense has not allowed a goal in the first quarter of their two playoff victories, holding the Philadelphia Wings and Minnesota scoreless on a combined 17 shots. The Stealth were shut out in the opening quarter over their comeback win against the Edmonton Rush in the West Division Semifinal and only scored twice in the first quarter of the West Division Final against Calgary.

Vinc is vying to become the only netminder to win both the Goaltender of the Year Award and the Champion’s Cup in the same season. He was also named a First-Team All-Pro for the third time in his career after breaking the NLL single-season saves record and leading the league’s netminders in every major statistical category.

A championship ring has eluded Rochester’s 12-year NLL veteran Dan Dawson despite his tremendous play in the postseason. Dawson, who is playing in his fourth title game, ranks fourth in league history with 113 points in only 17 playoff games and currently leads the Knighthawks with nine points (5+4) in the postseason.

“When your career is done, you are going to be remembered by the number of championships you’ve won,” Dawson said. “I’ve been working harder and harder every year to win the Cup.”

“You want those people to feel the success you felt,” said Accursi, who already has three championship rings. “Dan’s been there three times and has come up empty, but he’s a premier player in this league. It would definitely be nice to pass him the Cup and let him feel that excitement that some of us have felt before.”

Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen is looking to become the first head coach to lead the Knighthawks to multiple championships. The 2011 NLL Les Bartley Head Coach of the Year award winner is one game away from leading the Knighthawks to back-to-back titles. In only his third season as Rochester’s signal caller, a win in the final would make him the franchise’s leader with six postseason victories.

“We’re just preparing ourselves like it’s any other game,” Hasen said. “Washington is going to be a tough opponent for us. That’s all we’re focused on right now. If we just try to ‘dot our I’s and cross our T’s’ and get on the floor and battle, results will happen after that.”

CBS Sports Network is the 24-hour cable home of CBS Sports, available to 104 million homes throughout the United States and Canada. CBSSN is available on local cable, video and telco providers and via satellite on DirecTV Channel 613 and Dish Network Channel 158.

CBS Sports Network is available across Canada on Bell ExpressVu (Ch. 1432) and can also be found on Rogers (Ch. 416), Cogeco (Ch. 744), Eastlink (Ch. 134, 206 or 168), Sasktel (Ch. 425) and BellAliant TV (Ch. 479). For more information, and to access the CBS Sports Network channel finder, visit cbssportsnetwork.com.

The broadcast will also be carried live on the American Forces Network (AFN) to be made available to thousands of U.S. Armed Forces members serving abroad.

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