May 17, 2012

NLL Notebook: Long Time No See in Champion's Cup Matchup

by Neil Stevens |

In Saturday's NLL final, former Rochester captain Shawn Williams returns to Blue Cross Arena for the first time since being traded to Edmonton last October.
© Rush

The opponents in the National Lacrosse League's championship game this Saturday night did not meet during the regular season so they will be going at it for the first time since Feb. 26, 2011, when the Rochester Knighthawks defeated the visiting Edmonton Rush 13-9.

There are 12 players from that game remaining in the Knighthawks lineup, while only nine players who appeared in that game remain with the Rush.

The Champion's Cup showdown sends Rush forward Shawn Williams and Rush goalie Aaron Bold into Blue Cross Arena for the first time since Rochester traded them to Edmonton last October for Ryan Cousins, Alex Kedoh-Hill and Andy Secore. Cousins is the only one of the three currently getting floor time with the 'Hawks. Williams was the Knighthawks' captain.

Vitarelli Fits Right In

Cody Jamieson was Rochester's leading goal scorer during the regular season with 36 and Cory Vitarelli was next with 29. When opposition defenses key on Jamieson, it is Vitarelli who often picks up the slack. Vitarelli, with four goals, was the individual scoring star in Rochester's 17-13 East final triumph in Toronto last Saturday.

''We have some big-name players like Cody,'' Vitarelli replies when asked to define his role. ''My role is to set picks to get other guys open and to fight for loose balls and, hopefully, score when I get my chances.''

He's extremely good at it.

The Knighthawks were up and down during their 7-9 regular season. They were a mystery to many observers. But Vitarelli says that he and his teammates always felt that as long as they made the playoffs they'd be capable of big things. They got in, and then they got hot in winning their first two playoff games. They are peaking at the right time.

Head coach Mike Hasen has pulled all the right strings.

''He's obviously very knowledgeable,'' says Vitarelli. ''He knows how to get guys to work together. He's very supportive. He helps guys be confident in themselves and you need that confidence to win. We have a lot of respect for him.''

Vitarelli played major junior hockey and his signing with the Knighthawks was delayed for four years because he was playing hockey at the University of Prince Edward Island.

His explanation on how he wound up wearing 23 in the NLL is a touch confusing. He had worn 25 and wanted to ask for it at UPEI but it was taken. He'd worn 13 the previous year with his summer lacrosse team in Peterborough, Ontario, so he took 23 because it was somewhat similar to 13 and was close to 25.

''It was just an available number that was decent,'' he says.

He's stuck with 23 with the 'Hawks.

Is hockey still in his future?

''The way things have gone with lacrosse, it's definitely my No. 1 focus and I don't see that changing anytime soon.''

Hasen Looks Ahead

Rochester coach Mike Hasen didn't spend any time gloating over his team's win in Toronto. He even found something to complain about: his team has only a .500 record this year -- 7-9 in the regular season and now 9-9 after two playoff wins.

Peaking at the right time, Mike?

''We're only .500,'' he replied. ''We're 9-9 and we don't want to fall back below .500 so we've got a long way to go. It's going to be even tougher next weekend.''

Owner-manager Curt Styres paid for seven buses to take 350 supporters from Rochester to Toronto, and he even supplied game tickets. They were on their feet cheering every time the 'Hawks scored -- all 17 times.

''When we got up [in the score], they were there for us,'' said Hasen.

Accursi Only Player Left From 2007

Mike Accursi is the only Knighthawks player left from the last Rochester team to win the NLL title. That was in 2007 when a 13-11 win over the Arizona Sting in Glendale, Arizona, earned the 'Necks the Champion's Cup. Hasen was a defenseman with the 'Necks that year. Now he's head coach. Pat O'Toole was the goalie. Now he's the goaltending coach.

Two Edmonton players -- Shawn Williams and Steve Toll -- were on the '07 championship Rochester club.

Rush In Fine Form

The Edmonton Rush have won six of their last nine games after starting the season 2-7. Wow, what a turnaround.

''A couple of months ago, everyone was dogging us and saying that we're terrible and everything else and now we're in the championship game,'' forward Ryan Ward said after scoring three goals and assisting on four in that 15-3 shocker in Minnesota that upended the Swarm last Saturday night. ''It's all about peaking at the right time and playing together and believing, and we're doing that.''

This Saturday will see two sub-.500 teams meet in the Champion's Cup game for only the second time in NLL history.

''We're coming in with the right mindset,'' adds Ward. ''It's all about compete, hustle and hard work. That's our mindset going into it and we've been able to do that two in a row.''

Everybody, including Rush GM-coach Derek Keenan, was surprised by the lopsided score in Minny.

''We were pretty confident we could come in and win but I didn't think we would dominate a good team the way we did,'' he said after the huge win. ''It was a complete effort all the way around and that's what you need to win playoff games like this and move forward into championship games.''

Rubisch's Reputation Grows

Kyle Rubisch's excellence in his rookie NLL season last year earned him the reputation as one of the best up-and-coming defensemen in the NLL. Team Canada noticed. He was selected for the world tournament and was a valuable component in Prague in Canada's march to a third straight world title last May.

Now the Edmonton Rush defenseman, who led the league with 43 forced turnovers, has been named 2012 defensive player of the year. He's strong and he's aggressive. Doubt it? Just try to get around him.

''Kyle Rubisch had an outstanding year for the Rush and is very deserving of the defensive player of the year award,'' says GM-coach Derek Keenan. ''Kyle is the ultimate team player and makes the sacrifices necessary to lead a defense.

''At just 23 years old, it's scary to think how much better he will be as he continues to develop. The sky is the limit.''

Keenan was an assistant Team Canada coach in Prague and after watching Rubisch punish opponents there was no question in his mind that he'd select Rubisch with the No. 2 pick he had for the dispersal draft of Boston Blazers players last summer.

Rock Captain Gives Rose Vote of Confidence

It wasn't Nick Rose's night.

The Knighthawks had their way with the Toronto goalie in their 17-13 win over the Rock in the East Division final but Rock captain Colin Doyle wasn't about to blame Rose for their failure to repeat as NLL champs.

''They hit their shots when they needed to,'' Doyle said of Rochester's offense. ''That's what championship teams do and I feel like they played like one and I don't think we did. That's how it goes.''

Toronto outshot Rochester 64-41. Veteran goaltender Matt Vinc outplayed Rose, who was acquired in a trade with Calgary in March. He'd never started an NLL game but went 6-1 before being taken apart by the Knighthawks. His bubble burst.

''When you're winning and you're talking about Nick you rave about how he can bounce back from things and how he's so even keeled,'' said Doyle. ''He knows we've got his back.

''He's the reason we were in this game. He won it for us last week (over Buffalo). Nobody is hanging this on him at all. He's going to be a good goalie for this time for a long time and we're proud to have him on board. Nobody is blaming him. We feel happy to have him here. Thankfully he was here last week. We just didn't give him our best (against Rochester). That's what sucks.''

Injuries Stripped Rock of Depth

Drew Petkoff, Ryan Sharp, Rob Hellyer, Jamie Rooney, Dan Carey, Phil Sanderson -- injuries destroyed Toronto Rock roster depth.

Head coach Troy Cordingley didn't want to talk about injuries. He wasn't making any excuses for his team's ouster at the hands of the Rochester Knighthawks. But anybody who followed the Rock in 2012 is well aware of how many players were too banged up to finish out the season.

''We ran into a very, very hot goaltender,'' Cordingley said in sticking to the present. ''They played very well. They're very well coached and they had a very good plan. They deserved to win. The majority of the game we were waiting for things to happen instead of making them happen. Vinc would make a big save and then they'd go down and score a goal. Four or five times that happened. It puts a dagger in you.''

Petkoff, a solid veteran defenseman, played only the third, fourth and fifth games of the season and was ruled out for the duration. Sharp, another reliable D-man, played the first nine games before having his career ended by another serious knee injury.

Hellyer, a nifty forward, played only the first game of the season. He never reappeared. Rooney, another creative attacker adding roster depth, was unavailable after March 31 because of a groin injury.

Carey suffered from concussion-like symptoms after a hit to the head by Buffalo defenseman Darryl Gibson on March 31 and was done. Having had previous concussion issues while playing for Colorado, Carey's career might be over.

Veteran defenseman Phil Sanderson wasn't available for the last three regular-season games and the playoffs after being felled by a high hit from John Grant Jr. on April 14. His uncle, GM Terry Sanderson, said it's a career-threatening situation. Weeks ago, he complained loudly that the league wasn't doing enough about punishing players for high hits.

C'est la vie.

''We're proud of our guys,'' said Cordingley. ''With all the injuries we had, the guys who were left continued to battle. We battled as hard as we could.''

Added captain Colin Doyle: ''I'm quite proud of what we did this year. We lost significant guys to significant injuries and guys stepped up who weren't even in the league at the start of the year. We had a lot of people write us off at 2-4 and 4-6 but we battled back and beat some good teams in a tough league. We positioned ourselves for a chance to go on a run at home to win the championship. This was a good group, a championship team, for sure. We just didn't play like it [Saturday] and unfortunately we're going home the loser. That's the way it goes.''

Toronto won't have a pick in the first round of the 2012 entry draft. It was traded to Minnesota for the rights to Josh Sanderson after the Swarm claimed him in the dispersal draft of Boston Blazers players.

Billings Has No Regrets

The Rock offense started slowly and didn't kick into high gear in time to match Rochester's attack.

''Actually, I felt we played pretty well,'' said Rock forward Garrett Billings. ''We had nearly 65 shots to their 41. Matt stood on his head out there and we couldn't figure him out.''

Was it just a matter of Rochester being due after losing its last eight games against the Rock? Did he sense the Knighthawks were a determined bunch?

''To tell you the truth, I felt the determination of our side,'' said Billings. ''There's no quit in our team. We kept getting chance after chance after chance. If you break down the game's scoring chances, we played really well, especially late. We never quit. Sometimes you run into a hot goalie. It happened to us the last two games. Fortunately, we pulled out the first one. In this one, [Vinc] got the better of us.''

The 2012 Draft

Edmonton not only made it to the championship game, it has the No. 1 pick in the 2012 entry draft. The Rush got it in the trade that sent Athan Iannucci to Washington.

The order of selection for the first seven picks when the draft rolls around in September: 1. Edmonton (from Washington); 2. Minnesota (from Buffalo); 3. Buffalo (from Philadelphia via Edmonton); 4. Minnesota; 5. Minnesota (from Toronto); 6. Calgary (from Colorado); 7. Calgary.

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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