Last Thursday evening served up opening night of the NLL’s 31st season, now known as #FaceoffWknd! Aside from the league’s recent rebranding, you may have noticed a few more subtle differences on the floor itself.
First, it was awesome to see variety of manufacturers represented in the game for the first time in many, many moons. Cutting the exclusive contracts was a priority of the new brass and that opened the doors to see not only Under Armour in action, but Warrior, Epoch, New Balance and StringKing too.
You might have also noticed the extra set of stripes floating around the floor. Now that the NLL has transitioned to 3-man officiating crews, expect to see an elevation in Too Many Men calls and penalties for cheap shots behind the play until the teams get used to them.
What else is new? Well the Rock were able to capture a win in Week 1, instead of waiting a month and a half like last season.
(1-0) Toronto Rock, 12 at (0-1) Rochester Knighthawks, 5
Kicking things off for the 2016-17 campaign, we watched the only two teams in the East that miss the 2016 playoffs duke it out. After remaining fairly intact for the past few years, Rochester would be going without lefty stars Cory Vitarelli, Joe Walters and Cody Jamieson. Fortunately for the hosts, the Rock would also be entering the season with a whole new look to their offense.
After a dismal 2016 and a series of retirements, Toronto took a risk and decided to ink a whole pack of rookies, including three Americans with next to no real box experience. Well, we only got to see Tom Schreiber and Kieran McArdle in action, Connor Buczek catching the game-day scratch. Either way, the Rock looked a lot different last week, for a variety of reasons.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, with the replacement of veteran experience with youthful prowess, that the Rock’s new focus is going to be on speed and teamwork. From the opening draw, Toronto kept pushing, pushing, pushing in transition and with the physical momentum, Jesse Gamble was able to flip a pass out to Brett Hickey with a full head of steam for the league’s first goal of the season.
A pair of penalties were then exchanged with no reward for either powerplay. Surprisingly, we did get to see both American forwards on the Toronto unit. Schreiber looked comfortable with the ball although his shot was denied by great Matt Vinc save. Early on McArdle didn’t seem to be looking to shoot, not always aware what to do with ball at times, as we saw him crank into his own man as the shot clock expired.
Grinding to make something happen, Schreiber bought the respect of his defender, drove to the cage, lost his man and drew a slide, popped to space and fed defenseman Damon Edwards trailing below the restraining line, stepping in to bury the 2-0 goal.
Looking to match efforts, McArdle took a hard run at the goal, diving cleanly across the crease. The shot was denied by Vinc, but the sliding defender missed the contact and took out Vino’s knees. Fortunately the net-minder was okay to resume play after a moment to collect himself.
Coming the other direction, the Hawks swung the ball to the righties, setting up a double pick for Dan Dawson to find Wayne Van Every in the shooter’s position for a submarine rip and his first ever NLL goal.
Not satisfied with a one goal lead, Kasey Beirnes was right on Van Every’s tail with another notch for the Rock. Coming in off the boards, Beirnes carried over to his righty side, gained speed and swept a shot in on the run for the 3-1 score.
Taking advantage of a two-minute Illegal Bodycheck from Billy Hostrawser, rookie Josh Currier was able to net his first-ever goal on the powerplay. Within the minute, defensive transfer Joel Matthews was able to get the ball from Jarrett Davis and take it to house to even the game at three to finish the first frame.
Catching the first Illegal Substitution call by the third official earned the Rock two in the sin bin. That didn’t stop Brodie Merrill from connecting shorthanded with Hickey for his second, with Beirnes collecting his first goal not long after, also fed by Merrill.
Repaying the big man for his apples, a minute later Jesse Gamble lobbed the ball down to outstretched Merrill. Following space made by Edwards, the captain snagged the pass, gauged his speed and then sunk a rip from range to further extend the lead to 6-3.
Following the proceeding face-off, Vinc took off into the corner for a loosie but before he met the ball he tried to lay a crosscheck on Jordan Magnuson. The hit actually snapped his shaft, forcing him to grab the closest shorty to defend the net. Luc Magnan gained possession and carried it down into the Knighthawks end, apparently forgetting that he had two guys on his heels. Magnuson rolled Magnan at the first chance he got, Sandy Chapman snagged the loosie and rainbowed it up over Magnuson’s head so he could snag it on the run and rush the play back down to Vinc, still defending with a runner’s stick. Without the big stick, the shooter’s options were endless and Toronto took a 7-3 lead with another transition goal.
Trying to cut the visitor’s momentum, Quinn Powless didn’t waste much time, finding the ball on a swing pass and letting it rip around the screen to collect Rochester’s fourth goal, first since tying the game at three. Yet another transition goal turns up for Toronto as Beirnes completed his hat trick, coming out of the gate and straight to the goal for an easy one-on-one with Vino to make it 8-4.
Halfway through the game, it’s hard to tell who Toronto’s stars are by the way the entire team unselfishly moves the ball. Schreiber’s vision is that of a veteran, quickly moving the pearl from McArdle to a briefly open Turner Evans, letting the catch and release fly for another Rock tally. The Rock’s ninth goal of the half chased Vinc from the crease in exchange for Angus Goodleaf.
Throughout the first half, things continued looking rough for Rochester as a unit. Four goals after two quarters is far short of desirable and little things like throwing the ball away immediately following a timeout just exemplified that something wasn’t clicking under the hood.
Star net-minder Vinc was back in cage to start the second half, but things didn’t appear to get much better right away. Brad Kri drew a trip in transition and the Rock capitalized by working some quick ball movement, resulting in a step down, over-hand laser from Hickey at the point for the first goal of the second half. Hickey’s tally joined Beirnes as the first members of the 2017 hat trick club.
He may not be a box guy, but Tom Schreiber knows what to do with the ball, plain and simple. Drawing two men, Tom backed out and touched it to fellow Princeton Tiger Mike McDonald for a quick trigger on Vinc, rallying another one for the Rock.
Showing that he’s dialed in and hungry for the opportunity, Quinn Powless tracked a Joe Resetarits rebound, tip toed the crease and bounced it hard past Nick Rose to stop the bleeding, bringing the score to 5-11.
After knocking with no reply, McArdle’s first professional goal was the product of even more stellar ball movement. Catching the ball and using the defender charging him as a screen, McArdle let it fly from downtown before Vinc ever saw it and put the Rock up by seven.
We saw top-notch performances from both goalies in the final 15 minutes. The score stayed at 12-5 through the remained of the game, with nothing finding the back of the net in the 4th. Vinc finished out the game, only giving up three in the entire second half. 43 saves against 48 shots on goal earned Rose his first win of the season. The big win makes a strong case for Rosey as he’ll fight to hold the job when Brandon Miller returns from hip surgery sometime within the month.
With changes still coming to the Knighthawks roster, it was refreshing to see Quinn Powless fighting hard to earn his spot. Unfortunately he caught a 5 minute major and game misconduct for a hit behind the play late in the game. To me it looked just a bit late but the camera moved down the floor before we could see the entire action. Powless’ two tallies added to lead the team in points, joining Currier as the only player to even hit duel points.
Five points from Brett Hickey led the charge for Toronto, but on both ends Brodie Merrill looked great in the C, snagging loosies galore, taking smart shots and making his presence well known. The Americans are getting touched up at every opportunity, but the two aren’t shying away from loose ball battles and making the smart plays instead of letting the pressure frazzle them. Their decisions didn’t seem to be limited by the coaching staff. Heck, we even saw them switching hands, when it actually made the most sense to do so, potentially previewing a new dawn of American-style box lacrosse.
Toronto will have the week off while preparing for their first home game against the Rush, while Rochester will stay in the Blue Cross Arena when New England comes to town for a 7:30 start on Saturday!
(1-0) Colorado Mammoth, 12 at (0-1) Buffalo Bandits, 8
The second game of #FaceoffWknd kicked off the next night, less than two hours west down the thruway. After falling short in the 2016 finals, the host Buffalo Bandits kicked off their drive for five banners at home in Banditland against interdivision opponent, the Colorado Mammoth.
Not a lot has changed to the look of the Bandits, with the exception of no goal-scoring Culp or face-off specialist Thorimbert. Staying intact after scoring the NLL’s most goals in 2016, the addition of rookie Blaze Riorden and fellow big body, Craig Point, on offense and the 2016 Transition Man of the Year, Brad Self, to help push the tempo. Taking the week off following the birth of his baby girl, Daryl Veltman took a seat in Week 1 to clear up space for Riorden to make his NLL debut.
Colorado made a few offseason moves of their own, but luckily start Dillon Ward between the irons after an incredible league leading .800 save percentage in 2016. Offensively they lose half of the magical Jones-Grant combo, but add the hot stick of Zack Greer, in off two straight Champions Cups, to replace Jonesy on the lefty side. The other notable addition is rookie right-hander Jacob Ruest, aka the Rooster, but we’ll get to him soon enough.
Following a few back and forth runs, the first goal of the game was sunk after sophomore star Eli McLaughlin tied up two defenders on the give and go with Chris Wardle. Wardle sunk the runner one on one with Anthony Cosmo to take the early lead.
Not taking the pedal off the metal, Colorado continued pushing fast transition and testing the stamina of the veteran-laden Bandits. Over ten minutes fell off the clock before Greer netted his first goal as a Mammoth. Going high to low on Cosmo after breaking into the heart of the defense, completely wide open, the big ripper in open space bought the game’s second goal.
Keeping the pace in transition, captain Dan Coates found the ball on a long pass with no one in his way. Rushing Cosmo to beat him on the far side, taking a 3-0 lead less than a minute before the first quarter’s expiration.
Looking to turnaround the first quarter shutout, Mark Steenhuis snagged a rebound and quickly dished it off to Ryan Benesch in full charge to bury the first tally of the season for Buffalo in Banditland. The score marked the third, first goal of the season for Beni in Buffalo.
Bandit defenseman Matthew Bennett got charged for Holding and Greer made them pay for it on the powerplay. A little fake gets defender Mitch de Snoo to move and one more step buys space for a well placed shot to put Colorado up, 4-1.
Not wasting time after going up for two minutes once more, quarterback John Grant Jr. picked off the top corner on the glove side from barely inside the box for the Mammoth’s fifth. Trying to stop the flood, seconds later Brad Self grabbed a loosie, pushed it down to Steenhuis, who dished it back to a trailing Self for a quick trigger on Ward, finding the second Buffalo goal of the night.
Play moved quickly between both ends and Buffalo eyes stayed on a big hit to Greg Downing in transition, allowing Greer to grab the loose ball in the defensive zone and quickly float it up to Jeremy Noble coming off the boards for his first tally of the season. Colorado’s sixth goal over Buffalo’s two sent us off into halftime; the road team with full momentum although over fourteen-thousand fans never let up.
Keeping the theme of fast transition, the Mammoth continued pushing the rock. In the odd man rush, Jordan Gilles and Creighton Reid ping ponged the ball back and forth before the towering Reid buried it on the five hole for yet another Mammoth score.
Back to the rookie, Rooster. Ruest found space and caught the ball without a defender on him and decided to let it fly toward an off-balance Cosmo ending with the young gun collecting his first ever NLL goal, the Mammoth’s eighth.
From the same spot less than a minute later, last year’s star Callum Crawford ripped high to low from the shooter’s spot to punch in another, chasing away Cosmo for Davide DiRuscio with Colorado now up by seven.
Fighting all game long to make something happen, Alex Kedoh Hill was finally rewarded with a beauty feed from Steenhuis while short-handed. The pass found Hill on a rope straight to the crease, leaping, snagging and slamming it home on Ward before landing in the crease for Buffalo’s third.
Just a few seconds past before we saw Crawford pumping, faking then pulling the trigger when no defender popped. The laser scored the Mammoth’s third on the powerplay, putting Colorado’s lead into double digits.
After setting the NLL points in a season record in 2016, the massive righty Dhane Smith held off until the end of the third for his first point. Connecting with his lefty mirror, Benesch got the shot off and tucked it in with only dwindling seconds left on the shot clock to close out the third frame, Buffalo behind, 4-10.
The final fifteen minutes started with a clean Mammoth possession and a major break to debate a good goal. The crowd was viewing the same feed as the officials, who took plenty of time to review it and somehow the refs saw enough evidence to give Greer another goal. Greer ripped it from range over the screen straight to the crossbar where the ball must’ve come down behind the goal line before bouncing away from the net.
The eleventh goal probably knocked even more wind out of the Bandits sails, but Hill was not going down without a fight as Benesch found him going straight to the cage. The quick release connected as Hill tip-toed, dove up and slammed it down over Ward for his second for the night.
A few minutes later, Nick Weiss rode in unassisted to try to create a run, before Benesch pulled a sidearm hopper around Gajic’s back to beat Ward and bring the game within four.
Before they could go too far, the rookie Rooster struck again. Stepping in… stepping in… and drawing no one, he let it rip on Big Fish and the ball trickled in to make it twelve for the Mammoth with less than three minutes remaining.
Under a minute he left, and with the extra attacker on the floor, Dhane Smith reared back and let it soar on goal. The fast ball found its way past for the final score of the evening. Although the Bandits started to find their rhythm near the end, it would stay the Mammoth’s game from the first whistle to the final horn, on top 12-8.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying, Buffalo had two more shots on goal than Colorado and fourteen more attempts overall. Clearly accuracy was an issue for last year’s runners up, but that’s not to downplay the stellar goaltending by Dillon Ward with a .854 save percentage to end the opening night.
Both John Grant Jr. and Dhane Smith were limited to a goal each, but their roles as quarterbacks in 2017 will be much more important to their team’s success than carrying the backpack. Smith took a lot of shifts on defense, which he backed up by shutting down Greer and other Mammoth shooters, but that puts more pressure on Steenhuis and Benesch to put the ball into the net. The team isn’t built to score by committee and Dhane can’t do it all. First they need to solve the goalscoring issue, then lock down their starter in cage. Cosmo didn’t pick up where he left 2016 and if DiRuscio can continue to step up, they should give him the nod.
The Bandits will wait until the 14th to take the floor again, this time hosting an Eastern opponent, the Georgia Swarm. The Mammoth will go again on Saturday at 9pm ET, hosting the Stealth at home following the Stealth’s trip to Calgary on Friday.
Coming This Week in the NLL
Friday, January 6th
- Vancouver at Calgary 9:00 pm
Saturday, January 7th
- Saskatchewan at Georgia 7:05 pm
- New England at Rochester 7:30 pm
- Vancouver at Colorado 9:00 pm