The back-to-back NLL champion Rochester Knighthawks (3-0) started the season with three wins for the first time since 1998 by beating the Toronto Rock (1-2) at home by a score of 12-8 before a crowd of 8,136 at The Blue Cross Arena on Saturday night.
The NLL’s reigning Goaltender of the Year, Matt Vinc, only needed to make 38 saves in net. It was the defensive unit in front of him that did a better than usual job breaking up passes and blocking shooting lanes.
“I’m pretty spoiled back there with not only the system that we play – it’s great for a goalie – and the guys that are out in front of me,” Vinc said. “They do whatever it takes, whether it’s blocking shots, laying on the carpet, doing whatever it is. They play great team defense game in and game out.”
“They play a great team defense, there’s no question about it, no matter what five guys they have on the floor,” Rock head coach John Lovell said. “It’s difficult just to get easy shots on them. But I liked some of the looks we had. We just didn’t have anything fall for us.”
In addition to forcing a season-high 13 turnovers, the Knighthawks’ defense limited the Rock to only three 5-on-5 goals. Of the remaining five goals Toronto scored, three came in transition, one on a power play, and the other with an extra attacker on a delayed penalty.
“That’s the one thing that what we got to do, limit the 5-on-5’s,” Rochester head coach Mike Hasen said. “Tonight, we were able to do that.”
“You really got to make a good shot to beat him [Vinc], and that’s been the case for a long time,” Toronto captain Colin Doyle said. “We can’t expect to come in here and hang 16 on him. It probably won’t happen.”
With a smothering effort on the back end, the Knighthawks were able to produce five unanswered goals bridging the second and third quarters, turning a tie into an 8-3 advantage.
Leading 5-3 after halftime, Cory Vitarelli scored back-to-back goals to begin the third quarter. His second goal, scored on the power play, was one of a few quick-stick goals that, with a pretty pass, caught Rock netminder Nick Rose out of position.
“We know ‘Rosie’ likes to challenge the shooter, and when he challenges the shooter, he’s susceptible to the back side,” Hasen explained. “It’s something we were trying to do. Early, it wasn’t quite clicking, but then we finally got a few.”
“We’re a good enough offense when we’re in form and everyone is touching the ball,” said Vitarelli, who suited up for his first game of the season. “Nick Rose is a good goalie. That’s what we want to do, get him moving and out of the net. It worked a couple of times for us tonight.”
Garrett Billings thought he cut the Rochester lead to 7-4 as he tip-toed the crease and deposited the ball past Vinc 5:42 into the third. A successful challenge by Hasen overturned the ruling on the field, and 29 seconds later, Cody Jamieson put his team up 8-3.
“I know he shot and he was in the crease, but his foot also came up and he stepped out of it,” Lovell said. “It was a close one; I guess it was in the net before he stepped out of it.”
“They go boom, boom, boom at the other end, and all of a sudden you’re down 8-3,” Doyle said. “Good teams will do that to you if you don’t capitalize on your chances. The ones that we did have, which were scarce, we didn’t capitalize on.”
Rob Hellyer ended Toronto’s nearly 22-minute scoreless drought when he scored on a delayed penalty call at 11:33 in the third. Jamieson responded just over a minute later to regain a five-goal lead entering the final quarter.
A tremendous individual effort by Stephen Keogh gave the Knighthawks their largest lead 1:02 into the fourth quarter. He outhustled a Rock defender to a loose ball after a blocked shot. Cutting down the middle of the floor, Keogh took a pass from Dan Dawson and went around-the-world to beat Rose. The highlight-reel goal extended the cushion to 10-4.
Stephan Leblanc, Doyle and Billings each scored once to reduce the deficit to three. For a moment, it was an eerily familiar scene. In the first two games, the Knighthawks allowed the opposition to go on second-half runs, putting both games in jeopardy. Jamieson, however, ended the lapse with his fourth goal of the contest 24 seconds after Billings’ tally.
“Runs are bound to happen, its how you stop them,” Brad Self said. “We didn’t change our game plan; we didn’t switch from the plan, they just found the net on a couple of shots. Then we got a big goal from ‘Jammer,’ and that was huge.”
Hellyer scored his second only 40 seconds later, but Mac Allen dumped his first goal since April 9, 2011 as the quarter drew to a close.
Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:
1) Cody Jamieson
2) Stephen Keogh
3) Dan Dawson