The Rochester Knighthawks welcome the NLL’s top-seeded team in the Toronto Rock to Blue Cross Arena for Game 1 of the East Division Finals on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET. Watch live on TSN4 & TSN GO (Canada) and ESPN3 (U.S.) along with MSG (DIRECTV 634 & Verizon FiOS 577), NESNplus (DIRECTV 628-1 & Dish 5434), Altitude (DIRECTV 681 & Dish 413) & ASN (Asia). Viewers outside North America and Asia can watch by clicking here.
Last Friday, the three-time defending champion Knighthawks defeated the Buffalo Bandits 14-11 at home to secure their spot in the next round of the NLL Playoffs against the Rock.
“It was one of those typical Buffalo-Rochester battles right from the get-go,” said Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen. “When they did get close, our guys stepped up and had an answer right away to widen that gap a little bit. The final five minutes, our defense stepped up and shut them down which was great to see.”
Rochester goes from hosting one rival to the next with Toronto headed to town. The Knighthawks know that they’ll have the “7th Man” and the Sea of Teal behind them the entire game.
“The plan was to take care of business,” said Knighthawks defenseman Mike Kirk about the East Semi win. “Celebrate quickly and turn all of our focus on to Toronto. That’s what we’ve done this past week and try to get ready. They’re a veteran team. They’ve won a lot of big games so we have our hands full coming up this weekend with them.”
“For us, it’s the best place to play,” Hasen said. “The fans are there loud and proud for us. It’s also a comfort level. To have two weeks where we’re back home playing two tough games, hopefully it’ll help us out a little bit here.”
A big part of the Knighthawks’ victory over the Bandits was the ability of the defense to get into shooting and passing lanes to slow down a red-hot offense. That will need to continue against the Rock on Saturday night for a Rochester victory.
“That’s our plan,” Kirk said. “Our plan is to get in as many lanes as possible, knock down as many shots as possible. Let ‘Vno’ (Matt Vinc) see the ball. But I think last game, our offense took over and we fed off that. They were able to get some timely goals for us, and after Buffalo scored first, we were able to settle in. That’s what we’re going to have to do this weekend against Toronto. They’ve a very dangerous offense now with Colin [Doyle] back and [Rob] Hellyer back. [Brett] Hickey can’t miss. They’ve got a very veteran group up there, so we’re going to have to do our best these next two games to get in front of as many shots as we can.”
“They’re veteran guys that understand what it takes,” Hasen said about the Toronto offense. “They’re just going to make it a lot tougher on us to do what we do. Every time they’ve got guys on the offensive side of the ball, they’re dynamite. They push the ball well in transition… We’ll have our hands full to say the least. We’ve just got to be prepared and ready to go for a full 60.”
A strong start can make all the difference especially in the playoffs and twice as much so when a team is at home.
“You want to get the first one in,” Hasen said. “You want to try and ride that momentum, ride the wave of your fans… When our fans are cheering loud for us, we feed off that. We get them in the game nice and early and keep them there, we’ll see where it goes from there.”
While four teams saddled up for the single-elimination round last weekend, the Rock took to the sidelines and keenly awaited the result of the East Semifinal game.
The opponent was decided and the match was set. The final obstacle standing the way of the Rock’s first Champion’s Cup Finals berth since 2011 is perhaps their most challenging adversary. Rochester snagged two of three games against Toronto this season, an effort not matched by any other team.
“They’re good because they are well-coached, they have a veteran group,” said Rock head coach John Lovell. “They have one of the best goaltenders in the league. There are not too many areas of their game that’s weak and they don’t do anything to beat themselves.”
Toronto met Rochester in their season opener and came away with a hard-fought 13-12 victory. The win started what eventually became a 3-0 run to start the 2015 campaign, a big surprise to many considering the harsh luck of losing Colin Doyle and Garrett Billings to injury. With a dab of poetic justice, Rochester stopped Toronto’s run, handing them their only loss over the first nine weeks of the NLL season. In the teams’ final meeting in Week 14, Rochester manned up on defense and earned a 11-7 decision.
“We had three good games with them this year, they won two of them,” said Lovell, who as the Rock’s coach will have his second crack at a playoff run. “We beat them in their building and we played another good game in their building.”
“In our building, we chased them a little bit. They are not a team you can chase, you have to go with them blow-for-blow,” he said.
Nevertheless, Toronto now boasts a completely healthy lineup heading into Saturday night’s matchup. Colin Doyle (rotator cuff) and Rob Hellyer (upper-body) each made their long-awaited returns to the Rock lineup against the New England Blackwolves two weeks ago. The two combined for a very modest nine points, but a level fairness must be acknowledged. The two also combined for 21 man-games missed.
“Colin has been a great player in the league for many years, there’s no question about his leadership,” said Lovell. “It was good to get a game under his belt against New England.”
“Rob Hellyer was having an outstanding season before he went down, he’s 100 percent healthy now and he’s ready to go,” said Lovell.
Not to be forgotten is Toronto’s finely tuned-defense and transition, a successful system completed by committee. Perhaps the Rock’s most sparkling standout however is veteran Brodie Merrill (151 loose balls), who is sure to enter the 2015 playoffs with added motivation. The 11-year veteran has yet to hoist the Champion’s Cup.
“This is where we want to be and it’s a great opportunity for us,” Merrill said. “We worked pretty hard to be in this position.”
By Jeremy Pike (@KnighthawksBeat) & Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) for NLL.com. Photo by Micheline Veluvolu.