May 10, 2014

NLL Weekend: New Format Debuts in Conference Finals

by Neil Stevens | | Twitter | Stevens Archive

Playmakers like Dan Dawson lead Rochester into its series with Buffalo hoping to move on for a chance at a third straight Champions Cup. (Clint Trahan)

So now we're down to four teams and looking forward to a brand new system to determine which two will play for the Champion's Cup. Each division finalist gets a home game and, if the two are split, a mini-game immediately following Game 2 will decide things. Here are Saturday's matchups:



Rochester got a bye after its 14-4 regular season, while Buffalo (8-10) went into Toronto (9-9) and beat the Rock 15-13 in the one-game East semi to end an eight-game losing streak.

''It was a big relief and now we can look forward to playing Rochester,'' says Buffalo transition player Andrew Watt.

The Knighthawks had a high-tempo practise.

''We prepared well and we're ready to go,'' says Rochester defenseman Mike Kirk.

These teams met four teams during the regular season. Buffalo won 11-10 at home back on Jan. 25 and Rochester won the last three: Buffalo 6 at Rochester 9 on Feb. 8; Buffalo 4 at Rochester 8 on April 19; and Rochester 16 at Buffalo 14 on April 26. Rochester was hot down the stretch.

''Both teams know each other so well,'' said Bandits assistant coach Dan Teat. ''We realize we have to be at our absolute best if we want to beat these guys.''

This will be the first post-season meeting since 2007 when Rochester overcame an 11-8 deficit after three quarters and won 14-13 at home. The Knighthawks went on to win the championship, but nobody on the active roster today was on that team. Current Bandits John Tavares, Mark Steenhuis and Billy Dee Smith played in that division final.

''It's everything you come to expect,'' Knighthawks coach Mike Hasen said of this rivalry. ''Every game is intensity-filled and hard-hitting. It's even more so when you get into the playoffs. The excitement starts rolling, the adrenaline is pumping and everything gets ramped up even more for games against Buffalo.''

Rochester has won the last two NLL titles. Buffalo's last championship was in 2008 and its win last weekend was its first post-season triumph since 2011.

Offense: Rochester has great balance with 2014 scoring champion Cody Jamieson (36 goals) and Johnny Powless (30) on the left side and Stephen Keogh (33) and playmaker extraordinaire Dan Dawson (19) on the right side. Buffalo's attack has perked up of late with Steenhuis (31) and Joe Resetarits (25) on the right and Tavares (24) and Ryan Benesch (25 plus seven against Toronto last Saturday) on the left.

Defense: Two punishing units. Buffalo scored only 10 goals in its two games in Rochester this year as captain Sid Smith and his 'Hawks mates clamped down. They'll try to do it again.

''We've just got to make sure we limit our mistakes and play with discipline,'' says Hasen. ''If we can keep their power play off the floor for as long as we can the better off we'll be.''

Goaltenders: Rochester's Matt Vinc staked a strong claim for another goalie-of-the-year award with a 9.56 goals-against average; Buffalo's Anthony Cosmo faced more shots than any other goalie and had a 10.77 GAA in the regular season.

Game 2: Saturday, May 17, 7:30 p.m. ET at Rochester. Added playoff games are being welcomed.

''The more exposure the league can get, the better,'' says Hasen.


EDMONTON at Calgary, 9 p.m. ET

The battles in Alberta are always big, but they can't get much bigger than the next two, with a berth for the Champions Cup final on the line. (NLL.Com) 

Edmonton got a bye after its 16-2 regular season, while Calgary (12-6) eked out a 16-15 home semi win over Colorado (8-10) on an OT goal by Shawn Evans.

''That gave our guys a lot of confidence and enthusiasm and we're ready to go this weekend against Edmonton,'' Calgary coach Curt Malawsky said during the league's weekly conference call. ''The two best teams in the division are playing each other now and I don't think it should be any other way.

''It's going to be a great series for the fans. The guys are really fired up. There are not a lot of people picking us but I know there are 22 guys in the room who think we can be successful.''

These teams met four times during the regular season. Edmonton won the first three: 15-8 at home Jan. 17, 15-7 at Calgary on March 14, and 15-11 at Calgary on April 12. Calgary won 14-13 in Edmonton on April 19 when Curtis Dickson scored his seventh goal of the night in overtime. Calgary won seven of its last eight overall, while Edmonton finished 2-2 after an historic 14-0 run.

''It's going to be a good one _ it always is with Calgary,'' said Rush GM-coach Derek Keenan.

Calgary faceoff specialist Geoff Snider was on crutches after injuring a knee and leaving the game in the third quarter last Saturday. Here's what Malawsky says about Snider's status: ''He's been fitted for a brace and we're very optimistic he'll play Saturday.''

This will be the first post-season meeting since 2012 when Edmonton won a first-rounder 19-11 in Calgary. Corey Small scored five for the Rush but has missed all of this season rehabbing from a knee injury. Last spring, Edmonton lost a first-rounder 12-11 at Washington, blowing quarter leads of 4-0 and 7-2, while Calgary lost the division final 14-13 at home against Washington. All thoughts are on Saturday now.

''The dome is going to be rockin,'' says Calgary captain Andrew McBride.

Edmonton has never won an NLL title. Calgary won it all in 2004 and again in 2009.

Offense: It's hard to stop 'Necks lefty Dane Dobbie, who led the league with 51 goals, and right-hand shooter Curtis Dickson (44). Add 2013 scoring champ Shawn Evans (26 plus a league-best 79 assists) on the right side and Jeff Shattler (35) on the left and you've got the NLL's most dynamic attack. Edmonton's scoring is spread around with Curtis Knight (35), rookie Robert Church (21) Cory Conway (18) firing balls from the right side and Mark Matthews (31) and Zach Greer (30) consistent scorers on the left side.

Keenan: ''Teams do focus on Mark Matthews but he's very good at making the other guys around him better. When teams start focusing on the big guy, that leaves the little guy, Curtis Knight, open.''

Greer was shaken up in the last regular-season game and Keenan says he should be ready to play in Calgary.

Defense: Edmonton has a distinct edge with Kyle Rubisch the top candidate for another league award. His 61 forced turnovers were 25 more than the runnerup in that category. Captain Chris Corbeil spearheads a fast-break element. He's a defenseman but he has scored 17 goals this year.

Keenan: ''Kyle Rubisch is a very special player. Brett Mydske and Ryan Dilks play the game differently but they're very effective. Chris Corbeil is every bit as good defensively as the rest and then he can contribute so well on offense. And Jeff Cornwall is an outstanding defensive player because he's so fast and physical. He's just so explosive, athletic and strong.''

Goaltenders: Edmonton's Aaron Bold had a league-best 8.73 GAA while Calgary's Mike Poulin was well back at 11:45.

Rush owner Bruce Urban went the distance last Saturday to ensure his team was ready for this one.

''We practised in Calgary during the day and then the entire team went to the game that night,'' said Keenan. ''It was really great of Bruce to step up and do that.''

Game 2: Friday, May 16, 10 p.m. ET at Edmonton

With no NHL competition, both teams are eager for the all-Alberta showdown.

''Playing the Rush over the last many years and four times this year, that's how rivalries are formed,'' says McBride. ''You get that little extra hate for them, that little extra drive. This series is going to showcase the growth of lacrosse in Alberta.''

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