With the perfect ending to Rochester’s 2013 National Lacrosse League season, raising the Champions Cup for the second straight year, it’s easy to forget just how close the Knighthawks were to not even being in the playoffs. Only a one-goal win over the Buffalo Bandits on the last day of the regular season kept Rochester from falling into what would have been a five-way tie for last in the league at 7-9. As it was, they went 3-0 at the only time that it really matters—in the post-season. It just goes to underline once again the mad parity that the NLL is enjoying with all nine teams stocked with deep rosters and tons of talent. Make the jump to see what went right and what went wrong for Rochester last season.
The defending champions got out of the gate slowly with straight losses, albeit with two of them being by a single goal. They’d get used to the close games; 7 of their 16 games were decided by just one goal and in their two-goal loss to Philadelphia on February 23, the Wings scored an insurance marker with just a second to play. Rochester turned things around after the opening losing streak, winning three in a row. They looked like they were on to something, to, since the last two of those wins were blowouts: 20-10 over Philly and 15-7 over Buffalo. They never did get over the .500 mark, though, and had to win four of their last six to finish at 8-8.
With all the firepower the Knighthawks possessed, the big question entering the season was whether there were too many stars and they would struggle finding a way to distribute the ball effectively. Those worries were bang on. The team took quite a while to find its way on offence despite the presence of superstars Cody Jamieson, Dan Dawson and Casey Powell along with what looked like a dangerous supporting cast. It seems counter-intuitive to imagine that trading away one of the all-time greats could actually help your offence, and indeed it’s too simplistic to suggest that dealing Powell to Colorado half-way through the season made a big difference. The Knighthawks scored 88 goals in the eight games during which Powell was on their roster and 91 in the eight games after he was traded. The 182 goals the latter pace would have given them for the season still would have left Rochester in the seventh place in scoring where they finished. Their scoring also stayed on the same pace in the playoffs, during which they scored 33 goals in three games. Despite the wealth of good players coming out the front door, Rochester didn’t win the title thanks to their offence.
Defence and Goaltending
The old saying is that defence wins championships. While you can find plenty of evidence to suggest a good offensive team can win, as well, there’s no question that defence and goaltending was at the heart of the Knighthawks’ success in 2013. They gave up the fewest goals in the league, 165—32 fewer than they had surrendered in 2012. The stinginess is a result of Head Coach Mike Hasen’s approach to the game. He asks his defenders to focus on defence and not worry about transition. They can take opportunities to push up the floor when they arise, but mostly they’re asked to stop the other team from scoring, get the ball to the offensive players and get off the floor.
The stats reinforce the theory: only one back-door player scored more than 15 points (Brad Self with 9 goals and 13 assists for 22 points) and goalie Matt Vinc was the third-highest scoring player performing mainly in the defensive zone, counting a total of 6 assists. Defenders like Sid Smith, Paul Dawson, Tyler Burton and Mike Kirk bought in to the system and it resulted in the stifling defence that was the team’s calling card most of the season.
It’s a chicken and egg question whether goalies are great because of the defence in front of them or defences look great because they have a goalie that can erase their mistakes. The relationship between Vinc and his defenders was symbiotic as he led the league in both goals against average and save percentage. The Knighthawks generally did a good job of taking away shooting lanes and forcing teams into taking shots that Vinc was comfortable stopping.
The Knighthawks’ special teams numbers pretty much fall in line with their regular scoring stats for last year. They were sixth on the power play with a 49.2% success rate. They also had far and away the fewest man advantages in the NLL in 2013 with just 59 power plays, 20 below the league average. Perhaps they were a bit too one-dimensional on the power play, judging by the numbers. Jamieson scored almost half of his goals (13 of 28 for the season) on the power play and he also scored almost half of Rochester’s man-up goals (13 of 29). Nobody else got more than 4 power play markers. They were much more successful when they were a man short, killing 57.9% of the penalties they took, good for second in the league.
There wasn’t a lot of turnover from the team that won the 2012 title, but the changes the Knighthawks did make were big ones; literally as well as metaphorically in the addition of Dan Dawson, the 6′6” forward who wound up second in team scoring with 23 goals, 52 assists and 75 points. He took some time to get comfortable with the club but was more effective as the season went on and into the playoffs. Things didn’t work out quite as well with the Powell experiment. Joel McCready returned after having to miss a year because of career commitments and fit in well. Even though the defence was already strong, Rochester bolstered it with the addition of Scott Self and Jimmy Purves from Buffalo during the season. Whatever impact the moves had on the team, it’s hard to argue with the results. Rochester will enter 2014 with a chance to be the first team in league history to win three straight championships. Judging by the last couple of years, they probably won’t make it look easy, but don’t bet against this team if they can find their way back into the playoffs.Stamp is a TV sports announcer and lacrosse lover whose skill set made him a defender but who always dreamed of being a goal-scorer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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