The two-time defending National Lacrosse League champion Rochester Knighthawks shut down the Minnesota Swarm with a 8-6 home win at Blue Cross Arena to open the 2014 NLL season on Saturday night.
Matt Vinc, the reigning Goaltender of the Year, limited the young Swarm offense to six goals - the fewest Minnesota has scored in a regular season game since a 13-6 loss to Toronto on March 23, 2007. Vinc finished with 45 saves on 51 shots, good enough for a .882 save percentage.
“Tonight was a big one for the defense and ‘Vno,’” Joel McCready said. “They played like crazy. ‘Vno’ stood on his head, and our defense just put up a wall in the second half. Those guys, they get all of the credit for this win.”
“I’m kind of spoiled in regard with our top defense,” Vinc said. “They give us a chance to win every night. I think today they gave me an opportunity to see the ball early and really feel comfortable. The last five minutes, the offense really took off and just us some momentum and we never looked back.”
On an offense with the likes of Dan Dawson and Cody Jamieson, it was McCready who unexpectedly provided the momentum swing the Knighthawks needed to come from behind. Trailing 6-5 midway through the fourth, he scored two consecutive goals 38 seconds apart to put Rochester up by one. He also earned three assists on the night, finishing with five points, second only to Dawson’s six (2+4).
McCready, a transition player, found himself taking more shifts on offense due to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and with both Craig Point and Cory Vitarelli scratched for the contest. With fewer players on the bench, McCready’s position essentially became forward rather than pushing the ball up the floor from the backend.
“Every game, I’m not sure where I am going to play. Tonight they said I’d play a bit more out the front door,” McCready said. “Just wherever they want me I have to fit in. Wherever they need me, I’m going to work my hardest; I’ll play in net if they ask me to.”
On a night neither offense played to its potential, Minnesota outshot Rochester 51-34, yet was unable to find its groove. The third quarter was the lone bright spot for the Swarm’s offense, scoring three unanswered goals to climb ahead 5-4. Callum Crawford, Shayne Jackson and Tyler Hass each scored once in the third and it looked like, at least for a moment, Minnesota may pull away.
“If you look statically, if you keep a team below 10, you typically get the win,” Minnesota head coach Joe Sullivan said. “You come into Rochester and you keep Rochester, one of the more dynamic offenses, to eight goals, and you don’t get the win. There’s problems other places.
“He [Vinc] is a big guy that plays well, and their defense plays with that. You need to turn the corner and come down the pipe at him, which is basically straight on, and get that 50/50 by going left or right. We didn’t make him have to guess tonight. We shot to him; we played to his strength.”
Rochester took a 2-0 lead in the first quarter while Vinc pitched a shutout. Johnny Powless in gathered a loose ball along the crease and fired it past Swarm goaltender Tyler Carslon for the first goal of the game at 8:07. Less than two minutes later, Joe Walters fired a bounce shot from the outside to take a two-goal advantage.
Up 3-1 in the second quarter, Dawson scored his first of two goals. Slicing through the middle of the defense, he took a quick pass from McCready and dove to avoid the crease to gain a 4-1 lead. Rookie Logan Schuss closed the first half with his first career goal, cutting the deficit to two.
After the Swarm took a 5-4 lead in the third, Dawson scored diving goal across the crease in similar fashion to the one that earned him TSN’s top play in the NLL from 2013. Hass’s second regained the lead for the Swarm before McCready scored the tying and game-winning pair.
Both teams have a bye week next weekend before returning to action on Jan. 11. For the back-to-back champions, earning the “W” in Week 1 is a positive step to becoming the first team in NLL history to win three in a row.
“That probably wasn’t our prettiest game, but again, we found a way to win,” Vinc said. “This year, we need to play well and consistent throughout the full year, and we can’t be going into the playoffs at 7-9 or 8-8 because that probably won’t get you in. We need to be a more consistent team from start to finish, and today was a good start to that.”
Dawson earned the game's First Star and McCready was the Second Star while Vinc earned Third Star honors.