April 3, 2013

Knighthawks Different Team After Deadline Deals

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

Matt Vinc and already tough Knighthawks defense has gotten better after trade deadline deals.
© Kevin Colton

Bolstering the defense with the trade deadline acquisitions of Jon Sullivan, Scott Self and Jimmy Purves has given the Rochester Knighthawks reason to believe they can win a second straight NLL title.

Opponents are realizing the obvious.

''I've been impressed with their roster changes,'' Toronto forward Garrett Billings said after the Knighthawks slammed the Rock 12-8 last Saturday night. ''Their defensive end, it just seems like a couple of teams just gave them some really good players.

''I wasn't happy to see those trades, them picking up Sully and Self and Purves, who is a mean body out there. They've really beefed up and got better. Credit to them.''

Sullivan and a third-round draft pick were acquired from Colorado for Casey Powell on March 12. Self and Purves were pilfered from Buffalo — seldom-used Alex Kedoh Hill traded for Self and a mere second-round draft pick relinquished for Purves — on March 13.

Sullivan, who made his Knighthawks debut against the Rock, and goaltender Matt Vinc are both 30, born just days apart, and were on the team in their home city of St. Catharines, Ontario, that won the Canadian junior championship in 2003. They were defensemen on Canada's 2010 world silver field lacrosse team in Manchester and they helped Canada win 2011 world indoor gold in Prague.

''I know a lot of the guys we just got personally,'' said Vinc. ''I grew up with Jon Sullivan and played against Brad Self my entire life. Getting those two and Purves, too, gives us a lot of flexibility back there, especially going down the stretch. It's going to give us some fresh legs. We're going to be a good unit going down the stretch.''

Rochester already had one of the toughest defenses in the NLL to penetrate in Sid Smith, Rory Glaves, Mike Kirk, Paul Dawson, Ian Llord, Dylan Evans and Scott Campbell. Put the revamped unit in front of one of the best goalies in the business and the Knighthawks are once again a formidable outfit.

Vinc was front and center in Rochester's run to the Champion's Cup last spring. Rock players will never forget how he frustrated them in the East final, and he's again at the top of his game with a .808 save percentage that is best among all NLL goalies. He blanked the Rock in the first quarter last Saturday as his defensemen time and again forced shooters to take low percentage outside shots.

''It all starts with their goaltender,'' said Billings. ''The same thing happened to us in the playoffs last spring. We put up 60 shots and Vinc holds us out.''

Veteran forward Mike Accursi keyed Rochester's offense by scoring three goals in the 12-8 victory but was well aware afterwards who needed to be applauded for the win.

''Our defense and Matt Vinc are phenomenal,'' said Accursi. ''They are the best in the league.''

They are allowing a league-low 10.1 goals against per game. The offense is just seventh-best with 11 goals a game but, the way the defense is playing, Cody Jamieson and Co. don't need to score 20 a game.

Replacing captain Pat McCready on the back end was a vital necessity when the season began. His nephew, Joel McCready, is stepping up impressively in a transition role. He's certainly got the McCready moxie, dropping his gloves to fight Pat Merrill of the Rock, and scoring a big fourth-quarter goal as well.

''We wanted it really, really bad,'' McCready said of the hugely important win after former goalie and current assistant coach Pat O'Toole was inducted into the Knighthawks Hall of Fame. ''The fans got behind us and we really appreciated that.

''Whenever they get real loud and get this building going it really helps us and we were fired up with Pat O'Toole being inducted into the Hall of Fame. That really got the blood going on the bench. This win is dedicated to Patty for all he did for this organization.''

The Knighthawks are second in the East at 5-6 with five games to go. They play four games in eight days beginning with a home date with Philadelphia on Saturday night. The 'Hawks are at Toronto on Sunday afternoon. In both cases, the winner will hold the all-important standings tiebreaker. The 'Hawks fly to Alberta the following weekend for games in Calgary and Edmonton. Their 16-game schedule ends with a game in Buffalo on April 20.

One year ago, the 'Hawks also were 5-6 with five to go, and they went on to win the Champion's Cup.

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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