The New England Black Wolves (6-4) took a big step in the playoff race, defeating the Rochester Knighthawks (6-6) by a score of 16-13 on Friday night at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Knighthawks fought as hard as they could, but the Black Wolves controlled the pace early on and never let up. With the win, the Black Wolves tie the season series with the Knighthawks at one win apiece, making the race for second place in the East as tight as ever.
“Outside of the win, it was important to play well and I think we did,” said Black Wolves head coach Glenn Clark. “I mean we let in a couple of shifty ones at the end, but for the entirety of the game, we were pretty good. It’s important, for us in a sense too because it’s three in a row against Rochester. We’d lost one to them, and to drop two in a row to the same team… It doesn’t define your season, but at some point you’ve got to bounce back.”
“It was a playoff atmosphere here, and they came out with a jump in their step and took it to us early,” said Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen. “I liked the way we handled it a little bit, sort of clawed our way back into it. At the same time, we had too many passengers for a little too long tonight.”
The game had all the tension and physicality of a playoff game, with numerous bodies hitting the turf on every play right from the first face-off. It was scoreless through the first six minutes of the game due to a powerful New England defense, but Black Wolves forward Shawn Evans broke through with a hockey-like shot right into the bottom of the net. Pat Saunders followed close behind with a long-range bullet right by Knighthawks goalkeeper Matt Vinc to give New England a 2-0 lead after the first quarter.
“We were just saying how we haven’t been playing well, and our offense is extremely potent,” said Black Wolves defender Brett Manney. “When we come out there and we’re able to limit their opportunities and keep their goals low, it helps our offense and makes it a little more comfortable; you get that cushion. We’re able to gain momentum and build confidence as a defensive unit.”
The Knighthawks’ first goal did not come until just over six minutes into the second quarter. Though the Knighthawks offense picked up some momentum, a goal by Matt Kirk being waved off due to a crease violation in the second quarter put a damper on the momentum shift. The Knighthawks scored four goals in the second quarter to get themselves back in the game, but the Black Wolves scored six goals in the same frame and held an 8-4 lead at halftime.
“I was just making the most out of the opportunity I had,” said Black Wolves goalkeeper Tye Belanger. “The zero was up there for a long time, and I was happy about that, but there were points in that game where that zero could have been up there a little longer.”
“It’s key because goals are premium and traditionally it’s a one-goal lead,” Clark said. “The margins are small and so it may not look like much in the first quarter, but in the entirety of the game. Now, it’s a one-goal game at the end of the game.”
“That’s what this league is all about,” Hasen stated. “It’s the ebbs-and-flows and ups-and-downs about it. It’s all about managing it. We lost our composure at times, but we did claw our way back in during the fourth quarter.”
Defensively, the Knighthawks held the Black Wolves off as much as possible, but open passing lanes proved to be their downfall. Goalkeeper Matt Vinc had a decent outing, making 26 saves on 39 shots on goal, but was replaced by backup Angus Goodleaf just after the fourth quarter began who made 4 saves on 5 shots on goal. Forward Stephen Keough led the way with five goals and two assists, while Joe Walters collected four goals and one assist. Cody Jamieson added one goal and five assists, and Joe Resetarits and Brad Self both had one goal and three assists.
For the Black Wolves, there were a few changes on the defensive end, but that did not seem to effect the team’s overall performance at all. Backup goalkeeper Tye Belanger got his first start of the season and had a fantastic night in the net, making 35 saves on 48 shots on goal and collecting an assist on a Shawn Evans empty-net goal in the fourth quarter. Offensively, Shawn Evans led the way with five goals and six assists, while Pat Saunders added four goals and two assists. Kevin Crowley collected one goal and added a career-high nine assists, and Kyle Buchanan had two goals and four assists.
“It’s been a while, probably about two years since I actually got my last start,” Belanger admitted. “I was pretty happy that I was able to get the nod tonight and I made the most out of it and got the win. I was in a groove at that point and I was in a good mentality going into the game, so I was in the right mindset.”
“It’s like a small playoff series in a way,” Manney said. “We’re chasing each other. I know they had a game last week, but for us, it’s three weeks playing Rochester before literally playing the last game of the season. Tensions are going to be high tomorrow because we’re not going to see them for three-to-four weeks, but playing them in their barn is obviously very tough and we’re hoping to play them tough and hopefully come out with another W.”
Three Stars of the Game:
1) Shawn Evans
2) Tye Belanger
3) Kevin Crowley
By Alyssa McLaughlin for NLL.com. Photo by Khoi Ton.