May 31, 2014

NLL Final: Can Rochester Rally or is it Calgary's Cup?

by Neil Stevens | | Twitter | Stevens Archive

Rochester rallied from down 1-0 against Buffalo in the East finals to win Game 2 and the mini-game that followed. Can the Knighthawks close out in similar strong fashion against Calgary in tonight's Champions Cup-decider? (Larry Palumbo)

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The last time Rochester lost a home playoff game was during a season in which Gary Gait was regular-season MVP, Bob Watson was championship game MVP, Brad Banister was executive of the year and Darris Kilgour was coach of the year.

It was a long, long time ago. So long ago, in fact, that none of the gentlemen mentioned above are now associated with the NLL. To be specific, the last time the Knighthawks dropped a home playoff game was in 2003, when they were beaten 8-6 by Toronto in the championship game. In the ensuing 11 years, they've gone 9-0 at home in the postseason.

So, don't count the Knighthawks out just because they lost the opener, 10-7 in Calgary last Saturday, in this crazy new playoff format that gives each team a home game and, if they split, lets a 10-minute minigame decide a Champion's Cup winner. A lot depends, of course, on whether or not Dan Dawson can suit up for the Knighthawks. He missed Game 1 as a result of being crushed to the green carpet by Buffalo's Rory Smith in the East semifinal and we won't know until the 8 p.m. ET game time Saturday if he'll be in uniform because his status is, like, some big secret. Fans wanna know? Never mind.

So, here we have it. Rochester has to win to force the 10-minute extra session. The league got the two head coaches on a conference call Wednesday to talk about it. A lot was said about the 10-7 game, which is ancient history now.

''The boys had a good compete level and battled hard right from start to finish,'' said Calgary coach Curt Malawsky, who will be asking for more from his players in Game 2.

''We have to improve if we want to take the next step,'' he says. ''We've got a lot of work ahead of us.''

There's no comfort level in being up 1-0, says Malawsky.

''You walk into that game thinking you've got a buffer, you might as well not even show up and play,'' he suggests. ''We'll take the playoff experience we have from the round against Edmonton and we'll use that to our advantage by taking the positives out of that. But there's zero comfort level.

''We're coming in to play 60 minutes of hard lacrosse. We're playing against a world-class lacrosse club so we're going to need to be at our best. We'll need to be better than we were the previous Saturday. It's a big mountain to climb and our guys are prepared and confident and excited to play.''

The difference in Game 1? Everybody on the Calgary side says it was the play of goaltender Mike Poulin. But that was at home. Now the 'Necks go into the 10,000-seat Blue Cross Arena. Knighthawks fans will be all over them.

''It's one of the toughest barns to play in in the NLL and that's obvious by the Knighthawks' home record,'' says captain Andrew McBride. ''It's going to be a really tough test.

''I think you saw (in Game 1) that they have a big, bruising defense. We're going to have to be prepared to play in a hostile environment and be ultra-focused right off the bat to get the job done. We expect nothing but the best from the two-time champs. Champions show their will when they need to so it's going to be a big test for us, but we'll be ready.

''We know they're going to come back hungry and ready to rock. They've got a lot of guys who've played in big games. It was nice to string one together but that doesn't really mean much unless we string another one (in Rochester). We'll watch the film and be prepared for what they're going to bring to the table. We'll make adjustments and try to put them in situations they don't want to be in.''

Rochester loss the opener of the East final in Buffalo so this situation is not new.

''We know we've got to come into our rink and play a heck of a lot better than last week,'' says head coach Mike Hasen. ''Calgary did a lot of good things. We need to be so much better in order to compete. If we're able to get to that 10 minutes, we'll see what happens.''

Without Dawson, the offense was out of sync. The lanky playmaker was sorely missed. The usual east-west ball movement was missing.

''We need to be a little bit more team based, moving the ball better, communicating on the back end a little better,'' said Hasen. ''Instead of having a few guys try to carry us, we need to work as a group. That's what has made us successful and that's what we want to do this week.''

Calgary deserves credit for converting Rochester mistakes into goals in Game 1, says Hasen.

''They played a dynamite game. We just have to make sure we're better. Sometimes you try to do too much. We just have to try and keep it as simple as possible and relax.''

The experience of coming from down 1-0 in the East final will help, says defenseman Scott Self.

''We can take comfort in the fact we went through this in the Buffalo series,'' he said. ''We need to be a lot better than we were (last) Saturday night. We need to add more energy. We've got to make sure we get the compete level up so we can get to that minigame.''

Rochester's 2012 and 2013 title runs don't come into play now.

''It comes down to who executes better,'' says Hasen.

It also might come down to whether or not Dawson plays. With him, the Knighthawks can become the first team in the 28-year history of indoor pro lacrosse to win three consecutive titles. Without him, it'd be extremely difficult to outscore the highest-scoring team in the NLL.

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