Rochester Knighthawks host Minnesota Swarm at Blue Cross Arena on Saturday at 7:30pm ET to open the 2014 NLL season. (Photo: Larry Palumbo)
The back-to-back champion Rochester Knighthawks begin their quest to become the first team in National Lacrosse League history to win three-straight titles when they host the Minnesota Swarm at Blue Cross Arena on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Knighthawks will raise their 2013 championship banner before opening up the 2014 NLL regular season. Watch the game live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network by clicking here.
The opener is a rematch of the 2013 East Division Finals, where the Knighthawks scored five unanswered goals in a span of 5:24 in the fourth quarter en route to their appearance in the Champion’s Cup Finals.
While the Knighthawks are 6-0 in the last three weeks of the 2012 and 2013 seasons – the postseason – they are a mere 2-4 in the first three weeks of the season, a trend they hope to end this year.
“Historically – you’d hate to say it – historically, Rochester has always been that slow starting team,” Rochester head coach Mike Hasen said. “The early part of the season is not generally our best. We’re always looking to improve on that and change that. This year I think, with the way the league is structured and the way playoffs are structured, we’re going to need that quick start.”
In an attempt to counter this historic trend, Hasen said he has altered the tempo of the team’s practices. Rather than starting slowly and building the intensity throughout, he has the players working hard from the first whistle.
In addition, the lack of roster turnover should prove to be beneficial. Many moves were made following the 2012 Champion’s Cup, including the blockbuster trade for the Dawson brothers. This offseason, only two new faces were added to the active roster: defenseman Mac Allen and backup goalie Mikey Thompson. This means the other 18 players are already fluent in the offensive and defensive schemes the Knighthawks employ.
“We don’t have very many changes, so guys are very familiar with the systems and, first and foremost, our expectations this year,” Hasen said.
“We’ve had just a couple of new faces on the team this year, so [training] camp has been pretty smooth so far,” said defenseman Mike Kirk, who is an assistant captain for the Knighthawks.
Allen returns to Rochester after spending three seasons with the Colorado Mammoth. Allen was traded to Colorado in the deal that brought Matt Vinc to the Knighthawks in exchange for John Grant Jr. Allen was a Second Team All-Pro as a Knighthawk in 2009 and played in the 2011 All-Star Game, but has only played in five games over the last two seasons. Now healthy, he looks to help an already stout defensive unit in 2014.
“Mac came into camp in really good shape,” Hasen said. “He’s a very up-tempo player; he’s an in-your-face player. He brings a gritty part to his game that we’re going to use and run with. So far, so good with Mac. We’ve liked what we’ve seen.”
The Swarm defeated the Knighthawks, 16-15, in their first preseason game on December 7. The Knighthawks held leads of 4-0 in the first quarter and 13-9 in the fourth, but Minnesota rookie Scott Jones scored the game-winner with 1.3 seconds remaining. The Knighthawks played all of their rookies and backups in the preseason contest versus the Swarm, so a sharper performance is to be expected in the season opener.
“I think it’s just progression,” Kirk said. “When we played Minnesota it was early in the year, but it was good to get a few kinks out of the way, and then get a little bit better against Toronto and then a little bit better against Calgary.”
According to Kirk, the Knighthawks’ locker room is eager to begin the new season. The team received its 2013 championship rings at its Christmas banquet on Sunday, Dec. 22, but is well aware that it has a new trail to blaze in 2014.
“I don’t think you could ask for a better Christmas present then to get back out there with the boys,” Kirk said. “We had a great year last year, but that was last year, so we’re looking forward to starting something new for the 2014 season.”
Last May, the Swarm fell to the Knighthawks 12-10 at the Blue Cross Arena in the East Division Final; Rochester went on to beat the Washington Stealth for their second-straight NLL title. The playoff loss marked the second consecutive year Minnesota has ended up one win shy of playing for the Champion’s Cup while fielding the youngest team in the league.
In 2014 the Swarm is determined to take the next step, powered by another phenomenal draft, where they were able to secure four first-round draft picks for the second straight year, including No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks F Logan Schuss and D Jason Noble. Taking into account the four first-round selections from the 2012 draft, the Swarm is loaded with young talent, boasting 10 players with either rookie or second-year pro status.
Aside from the budding youth movement, the Swarm is returning much of their core that has propelled them to four straight playoff berths, including captain T Andrew Suitor, who is back in action after sustaining an ACL injury last season. Suitor is joined by 2013 leading scorer F Callum Crawford (32g, 63a), 2013 NLL Transition Player of the Year Jordan MacIntosh (27g, 28a) and veteran D Jeff Gilbert (3g, 12a), all who add experience and leadership to the team.
Coach Joe Sullivan is markedly pleased at the status of his team entering regular season play, coming off a three-week training camp that was the most intense and competitive in team history. “Camp went extremely well, I am very excited about some of our young guys and our veterans are getting into the groove,” Sullivan explained. “We are a lot closer to where we want to be and further into our systems than we have been in past years, which I think will lead to better execution in game one.”
The Swarm finished the preseason with a 2-1 record, highlighted by a 16-15 victory over Rochester at the Blue Cross Arena after a last-second goal by rookie F Scott Jones. Sullivan made it clear that one of his primary goals in training camp was to replicate the quality and intensity of regular-season play, which in his opinion meant playing in front of a hostile Knighthawks crowd. “Our intent in scheduling our preseason was to get used to playing in those environments,” Sullivan said. “If you are going to measure up to anyone it might as well be Rochester.”
The Knighthawks (8-8 in 2013) return most of their roster from their championship winning team a year prior, including six of their top seven scorers. Rochester is led by 2013 leading scorers forwards Cody Jamieson (28g, 61a) and Dan Dawson (23g, 52a), as well as their goaltender Matt Vinc, who led the NLL last year with a 10.17 goals-against average an .803 save percentage.
“They have a tough defense, a real gritty offense that can score, and an outstanding goalie,” Sullivan said. “They are well coached and have a great atmosphere at Blue Cross Arena. They have it all and that’s why they are two-time champions.
According to Sullivan, the Swarm must utilize their team speed in order to find success, especially against the older, more experienced Knighthawks. “We are an exciting and fast team. We have to push them, make them make mistakes, and see if they can keep up.”
Having come so close the past couple of years, Suitor speaks for the team’s expectations entering the 2014 season: “We want to win and we want to win now. We have the team to win this year and that is our goal.”