May 9, 2013

Evenly Matched NLL Final a Chance for Hero to Emerge

by Neil Stevens |

Rochester is trying to become the first team since Toronto in 2003 to win the Champion's Cup two years in a row. Dan Dawson (above) is trying to win his first title.
© Larry Palumbo

When the two finalists are so evenly matched, which will be the case in the NLL's Champion's Cup game Saturday night, the outcome sometimes is determined by one player breaking loose and having his most sensational game of the year.

If this is what occurs Saturday night, I'll pick Rochester's Dan Dawson and Washington's Athan Iannucci as each team's probable hero. Both are veterans dying to earn a first NLL title and both have the talent to make it happen for their teams.

Call it a gut feeling. After all, there's little to choose between the Knighthawks and the Stealth.

Matt Vinc of the 'Hawks (10.17 goals-against average and .803 save percentage) and Tyler Richards of the Stealth (10.92 and .795) were 1-2 among all first-string goaltenders in the league when end-of-season numbers were crunched. Call goaltending even.

Defensively, Rochester allowed a league-low 165 goals and Washington was fourth-best with 192 against. In two playoff games, Rochester's goals against average is nine and Washington's 12. Give the 'Hawks an edge, but only a slight one because the rookie-laced Stealth D has come on like gangbusters.

Offensively, Washington was fifth-best with 193 goals, while Rochester was seventh among the nine teams with 179. Cody Jamieson (28), Cory Vitarelli (25), Dawson (23) and Johnny Powless (22) are the 'Hawks' 20-or-more scorers. Rhys Duch (45), Lewis Ratcliff (31), Iannucci (22) and Dean Hill (20) were the leading Stealth shooters. Rochester has scored an average of 11 goals in the playoffs and Washington an average of 12 in its two games. Give the Stealth a slight edge here.

''Both teams improved through the season and both teams are peaking right now,'' said Stealth coach Chris Hall. ''It's going to be a great matchup.''

''It's going to be a big challenge for us and we're looking forward to it,'' said Rochester coach Mike Hasen.

They opened the season together back on Jan. 5, when Washington beat visiting Rochester 13-12. The Stealth had a 64-47 edge in shots on goal. Vitarelli scored three and Joe Walters and Powless two each for the 'Hawks. Dawson didn't get a goal but set up four. Duch and Cliff Smith each scored three and Ratcliff and Iannucci got two each for the Stealth.

In Rochester on Feb. 2, the 'Hawks eked out a 7-6 win on a Powless goal in the sixth minute of the fourth quarter. Rochester had a 55-48 shots advantage. Jamieson got two that night. Ratcliff and Mike Grimes got two each for the Stealth.

Rochester will be trying to become the first team since Toronto in 2003 to win the Champion's Cup two years in a row.

''It's been a roller coaster ride,'' said veteran forward Mike Accursi. ''We believe in each other. Once we found our groove and found what was working for us, we were fine.''

The offense has finally gelled. Accursi said there's enough firepower to go all the way.

''Yea, I think so,'' he said during the league's weekly conference call Wednesday. ''If you look at our season, the times we've won we've had different players step up.''

Craig Point did so last game.

''Are we going to look for one guy to take us on his back and lead us to glory? No,'' said Accursi. ''We have a balanced offense and we've had our success when everybody has been contributing.''

Repeating isn't in his thoughts, said Hasen.

''That's the furthest thing from our minds,'' he said. ''We're preparing ourselves like it's any other game. Washington is going to be a tough opponent. That's all we're thinking about right now.''

The Stealth won the title in 2010 and was a finalist in 2011.

''It will be a matter of keeping your composure and who can take the ups and downs, and I think our experience is going to help with that,'' said Duch, who played key roles in those two previous trips to the final.

Will it be a high-scoring shootout or a tight defensive battle?

''I don't think you can predict that stuff or plan on whether it's going to be low scoring or high scoring,'' said Hall. ''You manage the game as it unfolds.''

''There are going to be ups and downs,'' said Hasen. ''You just stick to your principles and give it everything you've got.''

If I was bold enough to predict a winner, I'd lean to Washington on the merits of an offense that has the greatest potential of the two teams to score more than 12 goals. Then again, perhaps I'll just flip a coin — and keep a close watch on what Dawson and Iannucci are doing.

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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