February 18, 2014

Stellar Defense Keys Rochester Repeat Hopes

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Scott Self anchors a veteran defensive group for Rochester. (Larry Palumbo/NLL)

TORONTO - Scott Self of the Rochester Knighthawks is in his 14th season so he's been around the NLL long enough to understand what makes his team's defense corps so effective.

''We play as a group,'' he says. ''The strength of our defense is that we make sure no one is on his own. We support each other. We dictate where (opponents) take their shots from.''

The eight D-men who helped make possible a 17-9 win over the Toronto Rock last Saturday night have a combined 75 years of NLL experience.

''It's the best group I've ever played with,'' Self says.

Forward Mike Accursi understands that comment.

''In practise, it's always tough to go against them because they're really athletic and aggressive,'' says Accursi. ''They're big and they're strong and they're in great shape.''

Add nine-year vet Matt Vinc in the nets and there is 84 years worth of NLL moxie on the back end.

''I'd put our defense against any defense in the league, and you've got the X factor in Matt Vinc,'' says Accursi. ''When you've got him back there, they can play a little harder because they know if they do get beat Matt is going to bail them out.''

We asked NLL Hall of Fame goalie and Knighthawks assistant coach Pat O'Toole what makes Vinc so good.

''He's a great athlete,'' O'Toole replies. ''He makes saves most normal goalies can't make because he's so active in there and he's in such good shape. He comes up with saves most goalies don't. He makes the saves he should and he makes the extra ones, too.''

The back-end excellence is a big reason why it is entirely possible for Rochester to win a third straight NLL championship. It is no surprise that the team goes with a defenseman, Sid Smith, as team captain. Smith was the No. 1 overall entry draft pick in 2009 out of Syracuse University.

''He's a leader by example,'' head coach Mike Hasen says of Smith. ''He does a lot of good things quietly. Everybody in the room respects him. Everyone follows his lead.''

Smith, a former winner of the Tom Longboat Award as Canadian aboriginal male athlete of the year, is quiet off the floor but is highly communicative on the green carpet.

''He's got a C on his jersey for good reason,'' says Brad Self, Scott's brother. ''He's a real solid defender, one of the best in the world. He doesn't do anything flashy. He's real vocal on the floor.''

Smith deflects praise with his usual heavy dose of modesty.

''There is no particular leader on the back end,'' he says in downplaying his major role. ''We focus on playing as a unit.''

The win upped Rochester's win-loss record to 5-2, which pleases Smith.

''We lost two games by one goal,'' he reminds us. ''We'd like to have a perfect record but it's tough in this league.''

They go into every game knowing they can win. Down 7-5 to the Rock, they reeled off 11 consecutive goals. Smith and his D-pack asserted themselves, and Vinc threw up a brick wall across the goal line.

''He's the best goalie in the world,'' says Smith. ''We know if we do our jobs he's going to do his. That gives us confidence.''

As the players celebrated the road win, clear plastic bags filled with ice were being applied to each of Mac Allen's knees. It's a wonder, really, that he's still playing. He missed most of last season, when he played for Colorado, after tearing the ACL in his right knee. That was the second time the same knee was seriously damaged.

''You just have to be diligent in rehab,'' he responds when asked how he's not only been able to resume his career but to resume it with gusto. ''Touch wood the rest of the season goes well.''

Scott Self knows him well.

''I categorize Mac as kind of a freak athletically,'' he says. ''He's a wicked strong guy.

''If anybody was going to come back from that injury it was him because he was already so fit. If you're in great shape, it's a lot easier to come back from an injury like that because your body is strong, which means you don't have as far to go.''

Hasen was dubious at first.

''He asked us to bring him out (to camp),'' says Hasen. ''We were skeptical but he's been real good for us. Mac came back with a purpose. He's dedicated himself to the game again and he's been real good.''

Allen echoes the words of his teammates when asked to explain the D corps effectiveness.

''It's great,'' he says. ''Everyone seems to know what they're doing and where they are on the floor. We're all on the same page and that makes it real easy to play.''

Ditto for Paul Dawson, who says every defenseman pulls an equal oar.

''We don't rely on one guy back there,'' he says. ''I honestly think that is what makes us go: everyone can guard anyone and we work as a unit. I think playing as a unit on defense is why we're so good. There are no superstars. We pride ourselves in being fundamentally sound defensemen from top to bottom. We're not flashy. No one's going to do anything crazy. Everyone's just going to do his job. So far, so good.''

We talked to all eight defensemen and responses were similar when they were asked why the defense corps is so effective.

Brad Self: ''We play as a group. There's not one guy that stands out. Everyone plays within the group and we have a great system. Obviously, the backbone of our defense is Matt Vinc. He gives us confidence. We can make a mistake here or there but he's always there to back us up. Many of us in the group have been together for a few years now and that helps.''

Scott Campbell: ''Some of us have been together for at least three years now so we feel comfortable playing with each other. We know where other guys are going to be and we just play our system. It has worked out pretty well for us.''

Mike Kirk: ''We keep it simple. We don't do anything flashy. We're a veteran group. We try to keep it simple and do the little things right.''

Jon Sullivan: ''I think it's just everyone buying into the coaches' defense plan. It's easy when everyone knows what everyone else is doing. That makes everyone else's job so much easier.''

So, what is the grand plan?

''Staying high and forcing them down, with lots of communication,'' says Sullivan. ''Having each other's back.''

He's been Vinc's pal forever. The two were lacrosse teammates growing up in St. Catharines, Ontario.

''Having Vinc in the nets allows us to take more chances on defense because we know we have such a great goalie behind us,'' says Sullivan. ''We can extend a little bit farther to put pressure on guys.''

Dylan Evans, with four years of NLL experience, is the kid in the D group.

''They're deep into long careers and they are in phenomenal shape,'' Evans says of his fellow Rochester defensemen. ''I find I learn something new every time I step on the floor with these guys. It's a great experience playing with them.''

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