Updated: 12/28/2013 11:41 PM
Created: 12/28/2013 11:34 PM WHEC.com
(December 27, 2013)...The Rochester Knighthawks of 2012 and 2013 became the sixth franchise in the history of the National Lacrosse League to win back-to-back titles. On Saturday, Dec. 28, against the Minnesota Swarm, they will begin their journey toward a historic third consecutive championship.
Rochester’s season opener is a rematch of the 2013 East Division Finals, where the Knighthawks scored five unanswered goals in a span of 5:24 in the fourth quarter to take an insurmountable lead en route to their an appearance in the Champion’s Cup.
While the Knighthawks are 6-0 in the last three weeks of the 2012 and 2013 seasons – the postseason – they are a mere 2-4 in the first three weeks of the season, a trend they hope to end this year.
“Historically – you hate to say it – historically, Rochester has always been that slow starting team,” Rochester Head Coach Mike Hasen said. “The early part of the season is not generally our best. We’re always looking to improve on that and change that. This year I think, with the way the league is structured and the way playoffs are structured, we’re going to need that quick start.”
In an attempt to counter this historic trend, Hasen said he has altered the tempo of the team’s practices. Rather than starting slowly and building the intensity throughout, he has the players working hard from the first whistle.
In addition, the lack of roster turnover should prove to be beneficial. Many moves were made following the 2012 Champion’s Cup, including the blockbuster trade for the Dawson brothers. This offseason, only two new faces were added to the active roster: defenseman Mac Allen and backup goalie Mikey Thompson. This means the other 18 players are already fluent in the offensive and defensive schemes the Knighthawks employ.
“We don’t have very many changes, so guys are very familiar with the systems and, first and foremost, our expectations this year,” Hasen said.
“We’ve had just a couple of new faces on the team this year, so (training) camp has been pretty smooth so far,” said defenseman Mike Kirk, who is an assistant captain for the Knighthawks.
Allen returns to Rochester after spending three seasons with the Colorado Mammoth. He was traded to Colorado in October of 2010 in the deal that brought Matt Vinc to the Knighthawks for John Grant Jr. Allen was a Second Team All-Pro as a Knighthawk in 2009 and played in the 2011 All-Star Game, but has only played in five games over the last two seasons after suffering multiple knee injuries. Now healthy, he looks to help an already stout defensive unit in 2014.
“Mac came into camp in really good shape,” Hasen said. “He’s a very up-tempo player; he’s an in-your-face player. He brings a gritty part to his game that we’re going to use and run with. So far, so good with Mac. We’ve liked what we’ve seen.”
The Swarm defeated the Knighthawks, 16-15, in their first preseason game on December 7th. The Knighthawks held leads of 4-0 in the first quarter and 13-9 in the fourth, but Minnesota rookie Scott Jones scored the game-winner with 1.3 seconds remaining. The Knighthawks played all of their rookies and backups in the preseason contest versus the Swarm, so a sharper performance is to be expected in the season opener.
“I think it’s just progression,” Kirk said. “When we played Minnesota it was early in the year, but it was good to get a few kinks out of the way, and then get a little bit better against Toronto and then a little bit better against Calgary.”
According to Kirk, the Knighthawks’ locker room is eager to begin the new season. The team received its 2013 championship rings at its Christmas banquet on Sunday, December 22nd, but is well aware that it has a new trail to blaze in 2014.
“I don’t think you could ask for a better Christmas present than to get back out there with the boys,” Kirk said. “We had a great year last year, but that was last year, so we’re looking forward to starting something new for the 2014 season.”