Photo: Micheline V/Rochester Knighthawks
The Toronto Rock (2-0) and the Rochester Knighthawks (1-2) renew hostilities for the second time this season in an all-important divisional matchup at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Saturday, January 28.
The Rock lead the season series 1-0 after a season-opening 12-5 win at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester on December 29. Although the Rock are sporting a relatively young roster this season, it was veterans Brett Hickey (3 goals, 2 assists) and Kasey Beirnes (3 goals) that led the way up front, while goaltender Nick Rose saved 43 of 48 shot attempts.
Despite Toronto’s success in Week 1, Rock head coach Matt Sawyer isn’t taking the rematch lightly.
“We expect [the Knighthawks] to be much better this week,” he told NLL.com. “I’m sure we are going to see their best lineup. It’s a big divisional game. It’s another early test in the season for us.”
The Rock are coming off a bye week after edging the defending NLL champion Saskatchewan Rush (13-11) in Toronto’s home opener on January 14. Meanwhile, the Knighthawks aim to respond after a 16-8 loss to the very same Rush on January 21.
Despite missing several key veterans, the Knighthawks will certainly be looking for a better start compared to last week as the Rush – charged up from an emotional pre-game championship-banner raising ceremony – scored three quick goals en route to staking a 9-2 lead at halftime.
“We just have to keep it as simple as we possibly can,” head coach Mike Hasen told NLL.com. “We have a bunch of young guys out there. Every game is a new experience for them.”
But the Knighthawks were also badly outplayed on special teams, allowing Saskatchewan to capitalize on six-of-eight chances on the power play. Rochester was only able to cash in once on five attempts with the man-advantage.
The Knighthawks will get a boost as 16-year veteran Dan Dawson is expected to suit up against Toronto. Dawson has missed the last two games due to personal reasons. However, fellow veteran Cory Vitarelli is less likely to play. Coach Hasen described Vitarelli as week-to-week.
The Rock have also been dealing with their own injury woes – notably with key forwards Stephan Leblanc and Brett Hickey. Coach Sawyer described them both as questionable with lower-body injuries for Saturday.
But the lack of veteran forwards hasn’t been an issue for the undefeated Rock early this season. Second-year forward Turner Evans and rookie Tom Schreiber both have a team-leading eight points after two games, while Rose has been spectacular in net and is currently second amongst goaltenders with an 8.00 goals-against-average.
“It’s really been a balanced effort from goaltending out,” Rock captain Brodie Merrill told NLL.com. “You look at the score sheet and you are seeing a lot of different guys contributing. That is what we want to accomplish throughout the year – a well-rounded team.”
Toronto forward Dan Lintner will play after sitting out against the Rush due to a one-game suspension for a pre-season match penalty for high-sticking.
The Knighthawks also have some talented rookies as Kyle Jackson, the sixth-overall pick in the 2016 draft, has impressed with a team-leading 14 points in three games. Josh Currier, the seventh-overall pick last fall, has recorded a team-high five goals, coupled with six assists.
The second of three regular-season meetings this year, the Rock can clinch the season series with a win and secure the tiebreaker, in the case the teams finish with identical records.
It’s a 7 p.m. ET start from the Air Canada Centre as the Rock celebrate Student Night. With a valid student email address, student tickets are available for as low as $16 (taxes and fees included). Check out www.torontorock.com/tickets for more details.