May 2, 2011

Knighthawks Go Out Gritty; Future Is Bright

by Neil Stevens |

Rochester's turnaround in the second half of the season was largely due to Matt Vinc's commanding presence in goal. Toronto's Bob Watson was just a smidge better Sunday.

© Rich Barnes

TORONTO -- The Rochester Knighthawks are done for this season, but that doesn't obscure the fact that this is a lacrosse team with a bright future.

A 10-8 NLL East semifinal loss to the Toronto Rock on Sunday afternoon ended the 2011 campaign, but the players had no reason to hang their heads, because there was nothing to be embarrassed about. They played hard, and they came close to an upset in rallying from an 8-3 deficit. Another bounce or two going their way might have catapulted the 'Hawks into the East Division final in Buffalo this Saturday night.

''They had a good game plan, we had our game plan, and it's just one of those things,'' said Rochester captain Shawn Williams. ''Bob Watson made some key saves at some opportune times and we just couldn't get that next goal.

''On the other side of it, they got enough to keep it a little out of our reach. We got within two and if we could have gotten that next one ... things happen in sports. We lost, but it wasn't for lack of effort.''

Williams said he'll have great memories of the 2011 season, especially from the second half of the 16-game schedule, when Rochester won five of its last six games, including the last three.

''It was probably one of the best lacrosse experiences I've had,'' he said. ''We started out with a lot of new faces, and to watch it grow and build as much as it did and to finish the way we did, this loss aside, it was a great season. I'll definitely cherish it.''

Colin Doyle and Garrett Billings each had three goals and three assists and Sandy Chapman, Pat Merrill, Blaine Manning and Aaron Pascas scored one goal each for the Rock, who had a 54-41 shots advantage in front of an Air Canada Centre crowd of 10,228.

For Rochester, Shawn Evans, Jordan Hall and Mike Accursi scored two each and Jarrett Davis and Williams one each.

Rochester led 3-1, it was 3-3 after one quarter, and it was 6-3 for Toronto at halftime as Watson made an impact.

Matt Vinc was good in the nets, too, especially in the second half when Rochester outscored Toronto 5-4, but Toronto was getting too many looks.

''That second-quarter swing put us a little behind the 8-ball,'' Vinc said. ''We tried to claw our way back and showed our resiliency, but they're a good team, in first place in our division for a long time this year, and they showed why today.''

Because of the way the 'Hawks finished their schedule, ''We thought we had a pretty good chance at this,'' Vinc said of the team's mood entering the playoffs. ''The first quarter, we showed that progress and we scored some quick goals. They made adjustments, Whipper made some big saves down the stretch, and we couldn't get over the hump to make it a one-goal game.

''But you've got to give our team a lot of credit, because throughout the course of the year we could have just packed up our bags and said we'd focus on next year, but we had a pretty good run at this and we had a chance to win.''

Rock players entered the game somewhat doubting themselves after losing four of its last five regular season games, including the last three.

''We had a couple of good meetings focusing on not getting down on each other and sticking together as a team,'' Watson said.''We were looking for some confidence.''

They got it by overcoming a 3-1 deficit. Goals 25 seconds apart by Doyle, who was behind the Rochester net when he reached around with his stick to fool Vince, and by Pascas tied it at 3.

In the second, Billings whipped in a sidearm shot on a power play, Merrill intercepted a pass while killing a penalty and ran the floor to beat Vinc low, and Billings fired one through Vinc's legs on a power play for a fifth consecutive Toronto goal.

Billings scored with a sidearm shot while being checked to the floor, and Manning leapt into the crease after sucking up a rebound to score a seventh straight Rock goal. Accursi bounced one in at 10:52 of the third quarter for Rochester's first goal since 10:42 of the first quarter, and Williams beat Watson with a long, high shot 1:53 into the fourth quarter.

Rochester then got a penalty shot when Toronto was called for interference with too many men on the floor, and Hall trotted to the front edge of the crease to stuff the ball into a top corner of the net at 2:30 to make it 8-6.

Doyle struck back with a long low shot at 2:47, and Evans countered at 5:39 on a power play to make it 9-7. Doyle then clinched it for the Rock when he got around Troy Bonterre to take a Billings pass and beat Vinc from the front edge of the crease at 12:05. Accursi trimmed the lead again, but it was too late.

''It was a tough loss for us,'' Evans said. ''We finished strong, but we had the breakdown in that one quarter where they scored three and we had none. There are times in a playoff game where you have to capitalize on things, and they capitalized on them and came out with a win.''

The 'Hawks knew they'd have their work cut out for them.

''They're a good team,'' defenseman Pat McCready said of the Rock. ''Every time were started getting a little momentum, they answered back. Whipper played a great game. You got to hand it to him.''

On power plays, Toronto was 2-for-6 and Rochester was 2-for-3.

Toronto players gobbled up 81 loose balls to Rochester's 61/

''They had a a lot of offensive rebounds, which let them control the clock a lot,'' McCready said.

Toronto's Stephen Hoar was 11-for-14 on faceoffs.

Toronto will be in Buffalo for the division final Saturday. The Bandits edged the visiting Boston Blazers 11-10 in the other East semifinal the previous night.

''We beat a very good team, a team that had a lot of confidence coming in,'' Rock coach Troy Cordingley said. ''Our guys [get] full credit. We outshot, [and] we played well. We did all the little things right that we got away from for the last five games, and we got back to playing the way that makes us successful.''

The 7-0 Rock run made it impossible for the 'Hawks to catch up.

''I thought we had control of the game even when we were down 3-1,'' Cordingley said. ''Matt Vinc obviously is a real good goalie. He made some unbelievable saves. I was on the bench hoping it wasn't going to be one of those games where we outshoot and outplay the opponent, but lose by one or two because of hot goaltending. But once we started scoring, the confidence started to build. We did the little things real well.''

Doyle and his teammates are fully aware of the challenge they face in Buffalo.

''It's not easy playing them anywhere,'' Billings said of the Bandits.

''We've got to survive that first five minutes,'' Watson said. ''It'll be a hostile atmosphere. The crowd will be loud. We're going to have to be very focused and trust each other.''

Pascas hurt his left ankle early in the fourth quarter and had to be helped to the dressing room. The ankle was heavily taped as he pulled on his street clothes.

''It's a little sore, but I'll be good for Saturday,'' he said.

Toronto, which won its fifth and last title in 2005, improved to 11-2 all-time in the postseason.

The West Division final will be in Calgary on Saturday. The Roughnecks defeated Colorado 10-6, and the defending champion Washington Stealth beat Minnesota 14-8 in the other semifinal.

Home floor for the Champion's Cup final in two weeks will be determined in the seeding of the four remaining teams: 1. Calgary, 2. Buffalo, 3. Toronto, 4. Washington.

If Calgary wins, the final is there. If Washington wins, the final will be in the home arena of the Toronto-Buffalo survivor.

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