If at first you do not succeed, try, try, try, and try again. It took four tries, but when it mattered most, the Rochester Knighthawks solved goalie Aaron Bold and the New England Black Wolves with a 15-11 victory Saturday night at the Blue Cross Arena. The victory secured the Knighthawks a date with the Georgia Swarm on Saturday May 12 for a berth in the Cup Finals.
“They beat us three times, but we were still really confident we could take them,” said Rochester defenseman Brad Gillies. “The other three games that we played, they’re tight games. We kind of new that if we changed our strategy a little bit, took away some of their strengths, we’d come out on top.”
While Bold had given the Knighthawks fits throughout his career, they got to him early and often in the first half. Rookie Austin Shanks showed no playoff jitters, scoring three of the first four goals of the game in the first 7:38 of the game.
“You look at 11 and what he did on the floor, putting the ball in the net for us,” said Rochester head coach Mike Hasen. “He got us going.”
“It was the first game of playoffs,” said Shanks. “I was excited. Grudge match, I wanted to take them back to them coming into our barn two games and beating us. Playoffs are a different season, so you need a little bit different mentality. You need to up your game a bit, so I just went out and played my game.”
The visitors responded though, scoring twice in less than three minutes to cut the lead in half. Stephan Leblanc got the Black Wolves on the board en route to a four-point night (3+1,) and Callum Crawford got the second goal to start his four-point night (3+1.) The score would hold at 4-2 despite a concerted effort by both teams, as Bold recorded 11 of his 39 saves in the first quarter alone, and Rochester goalie Matt Vinc recorded 17 of his 49 saves in the quarter as well.
“We were looking for ways to scheme on defense,” said Black Wolves head coach Glenn Clark. “They were finding holes. It’s difficult when that’s happening, so you’ve just got to try and weather it and get more aggressive on ‘D,’ try to score. You’re trying to manufacture ways to keep it out of your net and put it in theirs.”
The second quarter was drastically different for both teams as the aggressiveness for New England’s defense did not pay off. Despite the Black Wolves looking to carry momentum into the break after scoring the last two goals of the first, Gillies opened the scoring only 28 seconds into the second with his first of the night. Gillies turned in a star performance, finishing with four points (3+1.)
Yet that early goal is not what sent the game into a tailspin for New England. The Black Wolves scored the next two goals to make it a 5-4 game and quieted the crowd. Riley O’Connor scored only 14 seconds after Gillies, his first of three on the night. Then Kyle Buchanan added his lone tally only 1:08 after that to make it 5-4.
Then the floodgates opened. Rochester scored six straight goals and chased Bold for backup Doug Jamieson, who surrendered the final two goals of the quarter despite making six saves of his own. The Knighthawks got on the board in a variety of ways with no player scoring more than one goal in the run. Rookie Eric Fannell scored 37 seconds after Buchanan, then Jackson netted his second of the night on the power play with Joel Coyle in the box. Joe Resetarits followed that up with his first of the night, then veteran Cory Vitarelli streaked off the bench to finish a transition chance that chased Bold.
Defenseman Graeme Hossack turned in a highlight-reel goal after fighting off two New England forwards, then found Cody Jamieson coming off the bench who flipped the ball back to Hossack who finished around Jamieson. Shanks, who got everything started on the night, capped off the six-goal run with his fourth and final goal of the night to take an 11-4 lead into halftime.
“The offense was feeling it,” Gillies said. “They were doing what they’ve done all year, swinging the ball really quick. Anytime they do that, it’s hard to stop them. We were able to get a couple in transition too, which always helps them and gets them going a little bit even more.”
Yet with the BCA rocking and the Knighthawks on a roll, New England would not go down easily. The third quarter belonged to the Black Wolves, outscoring Rochester 5-1 to make it 12-9 after three. Bold came back into the game and recorded 11 saves. Crawford completed his hat trick during the quarter, with Leblanc and O’Connor each netting their second goals of the night, and former Knighthawk Adam Bomberry scoring in transition as well. If not for Resetarits’ second of the night and Vinc still making 10 saves, the situation would have been even worse.
“We dug a hole obviously in the first half, and it was a big one,” Clark said. “We did a good job of managing it and getting back to a manageable number. . . We knew we had to play fast, we didn’t have clock to work with. We had a seven-goal deficit, so we knew we had to push pace in both ends of the floor. On defense, we had to get them play fast to try to get some turnovers. On offense, we had to go to the net. We just did, we committed to playing with pace, get looks, and some started to drop.”
The worse came at the start of the fourth. After Rochester failed to score with their final chance of the third, they earned a power play after Coyle got another trip to the box for holding to open the fourth. While it was a prime opportunity for the Knighthawks to retake a four-goal lead, Leblanc instead ripped one home short-handed to make it 12-10 only 41 seconds into the quarter.
“It was probably a turning point,” Clark said. “We got to that 12-10 mark, and I think Crowley hit a post, O’Connor had a wide… We had a couple of real good positioning looks when it was 12-10, and that would have been a big difference maker.”
With New England unable to capitalize on those looks, it was instead Gillies who made the big difference.
With just over 10 minutes remaining in the game, Gillies snared a pass and raced past everyone. As he did earlier, he made no mistake and beat Bold to reopen the three-goal lead. All the energy that had previously been sucked out of the arena was back and then some.
“Just run, run as fast as you can,” Gillies said of the chance with a laugh. “I saw that guy trailing, trying to close the gap on me, so I just tried to pull away a little bit. Once I got in tight, just wanted to throw a couple fakes and try to find the net.”
Vitarelli followed up just over a minute later to make it a four-goal game with his second of the night. Then with under seven minutes to go, O’Connor completed his hat trick to keep New England within reach.
With just over three minutes to go, the Black Wolves pulled Bold for the extra attacker, and Gillies capped off an incredible night with his third goal, this time only having to get a good angle around a forward to find the empty net. Despite a flurry of action, Vinc made 11 saves in the fourth to help put the game to rest and secure a date with Georgia.
“It’s just the law of averages,” Clark said. “They’re eventually going to score, and they did. We just couldn’t close the gap. . . [Vinc] was good down the stretch. We had some real good looks and he just did what he does. We had a couple on the crease, one-on-one, and he just shut the door. That’s why he is what he is. He is one of the best in the game, and he continues to prove it.”
“I think he was even bigger in the first half,” Hasen said. “They pushed hard, and he made a lot of good saves for us. He just kept our momentum going. But at the end of the day, that’s what he gets paid to do. That’s what we expect out of him. It’s what we need. We need our best players to be our best players. Tonight, ‘V’ allowed us to get on that run and continue.”