April 18, 2012

Stevens: Mysterious Rochester Can Still Finish First in East

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

Is Rochester a team with a dynamic but inconsistent offense that could win it all or a club with a defense that is too weak to hoist the Champion's Cup?
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

The Rochester Knighthawks are somewhat of a mystery.

I have seen them play often but still can't figure them out.

They start the season by beating the Wings by 10 goals in Philadelphia but score only nine in a home loss to Buffalo. Then they drop close ones in Toronto and Denver to limp out of January at 1-3.

In February, they score 16 to beat the visiting Swarm but manage only six goals in getting stung by the same team in Minneapolis. They score 15 to beat the visiting Stealth and then give up 16 in losing in Toronto.

March sees them battling to wins in Philadelphia and at home against Buffalo to get to .500 but they then manage only seven goals in an embarrassing home loss to Toronto _ their third straight defeat at the hands of the Rock _ and give up 16 in a home loss to Colorado to slip to 5-7.

Now it's April and the offense appears to be firing on all cylinders as they score 28 goals in a split with an impressive Calgary squad. They drop a one-goal cliffhanger in Alberta and return home to spank the No. 1 Roughnecks and go to 6-8 to clinch a playoff berth.

''It was our goal at the start of the year but we know we have a lot of work left to do in moving forward,'' says head coach Mike Hasen.

So, what have we got here?

A team with a dynamic but inconsistent offense that could win it all or a club with a defense that is too weak to put captain Pat McCready in position to hoist the Champion's Cup?

Only time will tell, and there is little of that left. The 'Hawks finish their 16-game schedule in Buffalo on Saturday and at home against Philadelphia on April 28.

Hasen always talks about a need to improve when he's asked to assess his team.

''We're still learning,'' he says during an interview. ''There's a ways for us to go still.

''We're not, obviously, the best team in the league. We're a team still learning how to compete.''

Yet, the offense is, statistically, third-best in the league.

''When they're on, they're good,'' he says of his attackers. ''It's still a learning curve to be consistent.

''That's one of the things lacking with the group a little bit _ consistency _ but we're a young group and it will come in time. We're happy where the group is at this point but there's always room for improvement.''

Cody Jamieson, the first player selected in the 2010 entry draft, is fifth in the scoring race with 77 points including 35 goals. He scored 28 in his rookie season. It was Jamieson who scored the OT winner that gave Syracuse the 2009 NCAA championship. The five-foot-10 First Nations star is certainly living up to the high expectations that led to his signing a 10-year contract, the longest in NLL history, before playing a single pro game.

''It's only his second year in the league but he's had extensive Major Series Lacrosse experience during his summers against the same customers he sees in the NLL,'' says Hasen. ''He's a proven goal scorer. He's a guy we lean on to make sure the ball goes in the net for us.''

Mike Accursi is having one of his best seasons, and he's been around for 15 of them. He's second to Jamieson in club scoring with 62 points including 21 goals.

''Accursi has been our steadiest player on the offense,'' says Hasen. ''His compete level and experience have helped the younger guys. He's a big reason for the success we've had on the offensive end. He leads by example.''

Most of the talk about rookie of the year centres around Philadelphia's Kevin Crowley and Colorado's Adam Jones, but Hasen suggests 'Hawks forward Stephen Keogh should not be ignored. He has 51 points including 21 goals.

''I do think he should be in that talk,'' Hasen says. ''He's been steady for us and in the last few weeks he's had some big games. He's calm and composed and shoots the ball well.''

Teenager Johnny Powless, another First Nations player with special stick skills, has really got into a great groove the last couple of weeks. He has 45 points including 24 goals.

''At the start of the year we said we were going to work him into the mix slowly but he's come along faster than we expected,'' Hasen says. ''He's been a sponge in taking in as much as he possibly can.''

Cory Vitarelli is a digger, and he's also second on the team with 26 goals. He can do it all.

''He's one of those unsung guys who does all the dirty work,'' Hasen says. ''When he has his opportunities, he buries the ball. He's a guy who we know we can rely on. Other teams may not mention him but we know how good he is for us.''

Losing transition specialist Jordan Hall to a knee injury last month was a big hurt.

''Jordan Hall can't be replaced by one individual,'' Hasen says. ''We've tried to do it by committee especially on the back end by giving a little more responsibility to Scotty Campell and Brad Self and even Pat McCready to play solid defense and to get up the floor and create opportunities for us.''

The 'Hawks are ranked seventh in goals against, and that is not good enough.

''I think a lot of it is just being simpler and doing the little things properly,'' Hasen replies when asked how the D can be better. ''We sometimes get into trouble when individual players try to do too much, but as a group we've been getting better each time we step on the floor.''

McCready is the captain.

''Pattie is the wily veteran who has been there and done that,'' says Hasen. ''Nothing fazes him too much. At 37 he's still performing like a young kid. He's still out there getting those loose balls. He's a great leader for us.''

Matt Vinc was NLL goalie of the year the last two years and is always at his best when games mean the most so look for him to ratchet things up a notch heading into May.

''Vino is a perfectionist,'' says Hasen. ''He's working extra hard to try and be the best he can for himself and for us.''

It's a longshot proposition, but the 'Hawks could still finish year in the East Division.

''Mathematically, it's still possible,'' says Hasen, who repeats his self-improvement mantra by adding ''we're just going to make sure we're getting better.''

Trying to finish first is not a huge priority, he insists.

''We just want to make sure we go into the playoffs as good as we can possible be.''

The Rochester-Buffalo game this Saturday will have a lot to do with the fate of both teams this spring.

''To say the least, it's a heated one,'' Hasen says of the rivalry. ''These are two teams that have a lot of respect for each organization but who don't like each other much. They've got great fans and it's always a dynamite game when we go in there. It's going to be a very important game.''

Hasen played for both of the teams.

''I started my career in Buffalo but I'm a Knighthawk now and I'll stay that way forever.''

There's no mystery to that.

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli -- a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor -- are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame.

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