By: Jeremy Pike / NLL.com Correspondent
The Rochester Knighthawks (0-1) aim to be unwelcoming hosts when the New England Black Wolves come to the Blue Cross Arena on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. ET. The two teams met four times during the 2016 season and split the series 2-2.
The Knighthawks dropped their season opener Thursday December 29th to the Toronto Rock 12-5. The game was tied at 3 after the first quarter but the Rock pulled away during the second quarter for a 9-4 lead at halftime.
As for New England, this is their first game of the NLL regular season. The Black Wolves made it to the Eastern Division Finals last year, but were swept by the Buffalo Bandits. A team that reaches the conference finals in only their second year could be tempted to keep their team the same, especially with the likes of Shawn Evans (116 points in 2016), Kevin Crowley (90), and Pat Saunders (76).
However, management wanted to add pieces to their puzzle and did just that in Chad Culp and Jay Thorimbert, formerly of the team that knocked New England out of the playoffs, the Bandits.
“I’ll start with Culper,” said New England head coach Glenn Clark. “He’s similar to a Kyle Buchanan type of player, really active, good on loose balls, good in traffic pickups, and always seems to score that back-breaking goal. . . He brings more of that grit, that energy, that activity to your offense.
“Jay is a guy that is obviously very good at faceoffs. He’s going to help us in that area, getting more ball possession, but he’s also a guy, very athletic, who can help us run in transition and play some solid defense.”
It makes sense that the Black Wolves would look to address their faceoff struggles. They finished eighth in the league with a .458 faceoff percentage per NLL.com. For his career, Thorimbert has taken 2,985 faceoffs and won 1,702, good for a .570 faceoff percentage. Saturday night against Rochester will be a first glimpse to see if he will make that kind of impact for his new team.
A familiar face to Knighthawks fans and players will be on the opposing bench Saturday night. Defenseman Scott Self was released by Rochester back in October and then signed by the Black Wolves days later. Self spent the last four seasons helping protect goalie Matt Vinc in Rochester, and now he will help keep Knighthawks offensive players away from goalie Evan Kirk.
Rochester gets back on their home floor nine days after dropping their season opener to the Rock. While the game was competitive through one quarter, a common theme post-game was their compete level just was not enough.
“I just think it comes down to little things like competing,” said Knighthawks defenseman Joel Matthews after the game. “I don’t think we were running to the bench hard enough. Offense off, defense off. So they were catching us in transition that way. Loose balls, I think we just got out-worked. Honestly, it sounds bad to say, but at the end of the day, I think they just out-worked us.”
With a game against a team that appeared in the conference finals last season, Rochester will need to up their compete level against a Black Wolves team that added weapons to an offense that had scoring potential beforehand.
One player to keep an eye for Rochester is forward Stephen Keogh. He missed the opener with a case of the flu and was put on the physically-unable-to-perform list prior to the game. If he can make his season debut Saturday night, he could certainly help the Knighthawks’ compete level. He also was the third-leading scorer in 2016 with 56 points, and his team could use some additional scoring after only finding the back of the net five times against Toronto.