April 22, 2011

Stevens on National Lacrosse League: Rochester Finds Groove in Time for Playoffs

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

Of all the offseason maneuvering, bringing Matt Vinc to Rochester has been the biggest boon for the Knighthawks. Vinc leads the NLL in save percentage.

© Rich Barnes

The Rochester Knighthawks haven't set the world on fire, but don't be surprised if they burn higher-seeded opponents come playoff time.

Win one, lose one. Win one, lose one. Win two, then lose three of the next four.

That kind of regular season showing doesn't prompt predictions of Champion's Cup celebrations. The Knighthawks were just another team in the depths of winter. But now, having won four of their last five, they've found their groove at just the right time.

''You know what, we're definitely feeling good,'' said captain Shawn Williams. ''The last five games, we've been doing a lot of things more positively than we were at the start of the season.

''I wouldn't say we're in a total groove yet. We're still making some mistakes but it's definitely a lot more positive than it was.''

Rochester, 9-6 and third in the East Division, goes to Toronto to play the Rock in a first-round playoff game on Sunday afternoon May 1. There's still the regular season finale against the first-place Bandits in Buffalo this Saturday, but it's a game that will be of no significance in the standings, so certain players will be rested.

Regardless, the Knighthawks are suddenly one of the hottest teams in the lacrosse universe. Strangely, it was a loss -- 11-8 in Buffalo back on March 5 -- that might have been the turning point.

''You know what, to be honest, I thought we played a great game,'' Williams said. ''At that point, we were still fighting to put some goals up.

''We got a lot of chances we weren't getting in the previous game. We took a lot of positives out of that game. That was just before we got a break in our schedule. We stepped away for about 10 days without a practice and, since then, we've started to click.''

The March 26 start of the four-wins-in-five-games surge coincided with the insertion into the lineup of Cory Vitarelli, whose university hockey commitments had made him unavailable to the 'Hawks for four years until this spring.

''He's been a great addition,'' Williams said. ''He's a big body that likes to get to the middle.
''He's a natural goal scorer. Everybody has to take notice of him. It's opened up a lot of different options for us.''

A balanced attack has evolved: Shawn Evans leads Rochester with 68 points (23 goals, 45 assists), Williams has 67 points (21g, 46a), rookie Cody Jamieson has 46 (25g, 21a), Craig Point has 44 (20g, 24a), Mike Accursi has 40 (19g, 21a) and Jordan Hall has 36 (16g, 20a).

''We have been playing great team lacrosse and we have got better every game we have played,'' Evans said. ''We gotta keep the momentum going heading into the playoffs.''

Coinciding with the team's obvious improvement in the last month has been some incredible goaltending from Matt Vinc, who now

"We're a different team than the last time we faced them," Rochester forward Shawn Williams said of the Toronto Rock, the Knighthawks NLL first-round playoff opponent May 1.

© Rich Barnes

leads all NLL goalies in save percentage.

''He's playing awesome,'' Williams said. ''He's been playing great the whole year.

''Our defense is helping him out more and, offensively, we're helping him out more by scoring more often. Goalies can feel more comfortable knowing they don't have to stop every shot, because we can score some goals. Everybody is helping each other.''

Added Evans: ''Having him back there gives us great confidence we can win every game.''

Skeptics wondered if Rochester had made too many changes for 2011. Trading popular vets John Grant Jr. and Steve Toll and dealing defenseman Mac Allen were bold moves. But they wound up with Vinc, and that's all that matters now. Getting Hall in the Orlando dispersal draft and giving him an offensive role was a key move. Trading Scott Evans was a midseason jolt.

Through it all, Mike Hasen succeeded in juggling all the loose ends in his rookie season as an NLL head coach and brought it all together when it mattered most.

''I think that a lot of people turned their heads after the trades at the start of the year,'' Shawn Evans said. ''We battled the ups and downs so far and are coming together as a team at the right time of the season. We have a very young team, and I like the direction we are heading.''

Where they'll be heading at the end of the month is to Toronto. Of Rochester's six losses, three were to the Rock.

''They've definitely had our number,'' Williams said. ''But we're a different team than the last time we faced them.

''For all intents and purposes, they look like a different team as well. They had a big loss with [defenseman Drew] Petkoff going down, and he's a big cog in their lineup. We haven't done much against them but, definitely, we're a different team now. We think differently. We'll be ready.''

Think differently? How?

''Confidence," Williams responded. ''You can go into a game thinking, 'We're in tough. We haven't scored against these guys.' But we're thinking at a different level now. We're not second-guessing ourselves as much. It's starting to come together. We're finding that as we're maturing as a team, it's getting better all around.''

Rochester last won the championship in 2007 after a dominant 14-2 regular season. The road has been rockier this year, but the going is a lot smoother now than when the trip began. A first-round win over Toronto four years ago helped the 'Hawks go all the way, and they'll need another one to keep their 2011 drive alive.

''When it comes playoff time, it's one game, and whoever shows up on that day and outworks the other team is going to win,'' Evans said. ''It should be a great game.''

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