After two weeks of waiting, we finally got down to business in a highly anticipated NLL final. The Saskatchewan Rush, who were the best team all season, and the team that managed to knock them off their pedestal twice, the Rochester Knighthawks. In most situations such as this, the Rush would have bene a major favorite to win. But the two losses to Rochester had everyone guessing. Could a team actually beat Derek Keenan 4 out of 5 times in a season?
We were about to find out.
Transition, Transition, Transition
In the hours leading up to this game, it was announced that Sid Smith, Rochester’s captain was placed on the IR with a lower body injury. In today’s NLL you can never truly tell when the injury occurred or how bad it is as these are tightly kept secrets, but losing your captain is never a good thing, especially with Rochester and their air tight defense that beat the Rush twice.
Early on, that air tight defense was doing its job, shutting down the Rush. Both Rush goals in the opening quarter were off transition, and it appeared at that point that Rochester was going to have its way with the Rush offense once again. But the other key in that opening quarter was that the Rush outshot Rochester 17-9. This would become a reoccurring theme throughout the night. Also in the opening quarter, you saw the Rush trying to make that extra pass and that extra pass causing a turnover. Derek Keenan would say post game that there were several opportunities missed in the game where the Rush transition passed instead of taking the shot, so you might see that adjustment being made for game 2. As much as the game was 2-2 at the end of the opening quarter, the Rush certainly had the run of the play.
Early in the second quarter, penalty trouble for the Rush gave Rochester an early 4-3 lead, when the Rush took two penalties on the same play, one of them being negated by a goal with the extra attacker on during the delayed penalty. Rochester would capitalize just seconds later on the power-play coming from the second Rush penalty. Rochester’s momentum would be killed a few minutes later. With Brett Mydske in the box (for holding of course), Robert Church was double teamed and Paul Dawson made a significant error picking his own teammate who had Church contained, and it gave Church the opening he needed to tie the game. Church would go on to score a natural hat-trick and give the Rush a 6-4 lead at the half.
Two critical things happen at this point. First, the Rush had simply worn down the Rochester defense. At the half, the Rush had outshot Rochester 33-20 by this point and was also far ahead in the missed shot total. Rochester’s offense was turning the ball over consistently, and many of these trying to force the ball through the middle, right into the defenders’ sticks and the Rush were off to the races.
The second critical thing that happens at this stage is that unlike in many of their games this season, the Rush didn’t come out flat in the third quarter. It’s been a common theme that they are up big going into the half and let off the gas. Perhaps this time it was the fact that the game was still fairly tight despite the Rush badly outplaying Rochester that kept the Rush’s heads in the game. I have to admit I was a little uneasy that the Rush only had a two goal lead going into the half because that third quarter let down had become so common. Instead, the Rush would explode for four more goals to open the third quarter to complete a 7-0 run that would start to turn the tide in the game.
The seventh goal of that run by Mark Matthews was quite inexplicable. Matthews is the first guy out of the gate on a transition break, and with Hossack driving the cage, the Rochester defense tries to chase Hossack down, completely forgetting about Matthews. When Hossack makes the pass to Matthews, he has 30 feet of space and nobody instantly trying to track him down. When you give Matthews that much time, he doesn’t miss too often.
From here on in, there were a few times Rochester scored back to back quick goals, just enough to give us some unease that this was perhaps where the Rush defense might cave, but every time the Rush had an answer. Ultimately what would do Rochester in were two more transition goals midway through the fourth quarter, and then down 15-9 with 6:18 to go, Billy Dee Smith was, well, Billy Dee Smith. He’s not the all-time penalty minutes leader in NLL history for no reason. When you take on a player such as Smith, it comes with the fact that he does take untimely and stupid penalties from time to time. Now while Rochester was down 6 at the time, and climbing back into the game would be tough, it’s not impossible.
We saw it earlier this year with Buffalo’s tremendous comeback against the Rush. But when Smith takes three minors on the same play and puts his team down effectively for the rest of the game, any hopes of a comeback were dashed. I don’t expect that Smith will be benched for game 2, Rochester needs his physical presence to keep the Rush at bay, but you can expect that Mike Hasen will have given him a tongue lashing after that series of events.
Ultimately the Rush used the power-play to effectively run the clock out and cruised to a 16-9 win and take a 1-0 series lead in the best of three.
Making A Difference
The question is what was the difference in this game compared to the two games prior? There is no question that one of the keys was the transition that scored 6 times on the night. With Rochester having that air tight defense in the past two games, it was the transition game that needed to wear out the Rochester defense and get those critical goals before Rochester could set up on defense. But it was far from the only factor.
The biggest factor in my mind is how much pressure the Rush defense put on Rochester’s shooters all game long. This pressure caused a whopping 24 Rochester turnovers in the game and got that transition game for the Rush off and running. That in turn wore down the Rochester defense and ultimately allowed the Rush offense to start to produce goals on them. The pressure defense also limited Rochester to just 44 shots on goal and 7 shots off target. Given that Evan Kirk had a shaky game in the West final, limiting the shots allowed him to get his confidence back. Kirk was vastly improved at just shy of 80% in game 1 of the finals.
Despite allowing 15 goals, this game certainly wasn’t on Matt Vinc. He faced 63 shots on net and the Rush had another 20 shots off target. When there’s that big of a shot discrepancy, you won’t win many games to begin with. Vinc was only slightly behind his regular season average with a 0.762 save percentage. It was clear on the Messenger goal that Vino was clearly rattled by the lack of support from his team, taking it out on the officials, but it wasn’t the difference in the end.
One stat that many people have pointed to was that the Rush were only 1 for 7 on the power-play and how much better they could be if the power-play was clicking. One thing I have to respond to that was that four of those power-play opportunities came in the final minutes from Billy Dee Smith, and the Rush weren’t overly interested in capitalizing on the power-play, and instead were more worried about killing the clock. The Rush had some discipline problems in their past several games, and while it wasn’t perfect, they at least took some steps to reducing the number of trips to the box.
The Rush took an interesting strategy into the faceoff circle. They realized that Jake Withers was going to beat them on most faceoffs, and instead of trying to win those faceoffs, the Rush were content to either hold Withers up so he couldn’t transition, or tried to jump the gun in the hopes they could beat him to the ball, knowing that if they did false start, which they did many times in the game, that Withers wouldn’t have a transition opportunity.
Withers was 71.4% in faceoffs, and most of those he lost were his teammates not picking up the loose ball. Thompson certainly didn’t get much of anything in terms of a transition opportunity off of the draw. The only problem for Rochester was that when they lost the turnover battle 24-17 and the loose ball battle 80-55, they simply couldn’t capitalize on all the extra possessions they got from Withers.
Push In, Be Patient
Speaking of loose balls, the Rush forwards outpaced their Rochester counterparts 34-11 in loose balls. The number of second and third opportunities the Rush had on the night was a major difference in the game, whereas for the Knighthawks, they weren’t giving their defense much of any time to rest.
As for what Rochester needs to do differently to come back in game 2, the key in my mind is that their offense needs to be smarter with the ball. They need to take their time, work the ball from a little further out, and try to keep the Rush defense honest by getting the ball inside and forcing the Rush to pack that defense in more. The Hawks did try this in Saturday’s game, but they did it at the wrong time, forcing the ball inside through sticks.
Rochester also needs to be more patient with that part of the game as well to find the correct timing. They also need to push the ball inside more from down low and not from up high. When they pushed the ball inside from up high, the turnover that resulted from it gave the Rush transition far too many opportunities. Most of the other Rochester mistakes, other than giving up too many loose balls to the Rush forwards, in essence stem from these mistakes on offense.
For those that follow me on Twitter, you would have seen how upset I was at the officiating that occurred in game 1 of the finals. And to be honest, I expected a lot more from this crew. Thankfully the scoreline was such that the officials didn’t have a hand in deciding the outcome, but what was occurring was quite poor, and it may not have been obvious to those watching on Twitter.
My first concern over what happened was consistency. If you have officiated any sport at an elite level, you will know that you have the opening minutes of the game to react to the level of play and set the tone as to what is and isn’t acceptable. In the opening quarter, the holds were not being called on either team. There was one incident approximately half way through the opening quarter where there was a turnover in the Rush end, Jeff Cornwall collects the loose ball and would have been on a 2 on 0 fast break the other way but was held up for a good two seconds, but no call. When this occurs, the standard is now set that you aren’t going to call the less obvious penalties and let the players decide it for themselves. But then in the second quarter, the little holds all of a sudden get called. There wasn’t anything in the pace or safety of the game that would have necessitated a change in the standard, yet it came. This lack of consistency was frustrating most of the night.
But even worse was the choice in penalty calls. One thing that is critical in officiating is that player safety has to be paramount. In the opening quarter, Marty Dinsdale’s head was slammed into the floor by Ian Llord, in plain sight of two officials, and no call. Then in the second quarter, one that was unlikely seen on Twitter, Jamieson and Thompson get into it behind the play, and it was something with proper game management should have been blown dead, coincidentals given, and that would have been the end of it before anything else happened. The trail official had crossed the floor and was watching just these two and calling nothing. So when Jamieson throws Thompson into the crux of the open gate door, with the official standing right there, and no call, once again player safety is ignored. It happens again in the third quarter with a cheap shot on Ben McIntosh. Here’s the key. Holds give you a bit of a competitive advantage but not overly concerning to player safety, yet those were blown down. But the fact that those were called and the player safety calls were not was a major problem. Penalty selection is a major factor when it comes to proper officiating.
At least the officials almost got the player safety issue right at the end of the game with Billy Dee Smith. I say almost. There was 6:18 remaining when the three penalties occurred. One thought process would have been that if you give Smith 6 minutes, he is in effect gone for the rest of the game. But he’s not. Even if the Rush don’t score, he comes out with 18 seconds to go with the chance to cause more havoc. Had the Rush scored more often, he’s out a lot earlier. By the time the third infraction occurs, at that point the officials should have stopped penalizing the Knighthawks on the floor and get Smith out of the game. The correct call from a game management perspective in my mind is 2 + 2 +10. That ensures Smith is out of the game and can’t cause any future problems.
I case the fans are worried, these games are reviewed every week and debriefing sessions are held. No question if there are problems, the league will address it. I just hope that for game two, we see more consistency and that the cheap shots are penalized quickly.
As was appearing to be the case for the last two weeks, the SaskTel Centre was nowhere near sold out with 11,842, which means 3,300 empty seats. The two playoff games the Rush have hosted have been their lowest two attendances since they hosted Buffalo back in February 2016. After that game, the Rush were on their way to the sold out crowds they were once used to. This season, there has only been one sell-out, but the playoff numbers are quite concerning. The excuses are out there, and they do ring true to an extent. The farmers are in the fields. Some people have begun their summer activities; but these same situations existed the last two years and every playoff game was sold out or nearly sold out, so what has changed?
Part of it is the honeymoon phase may be slowly coming to an end. The last two seasons, it was a massive deal to be at what was Saskatoon’s first professional league title in over two decades. Now, those not embedded in the team are more ambivalent to coming when the weather is nice outside as the Rush being in first place is commonplace. But one other issue exists.
This year the Rush front office made a major error, and it’s an error I hear from season ticket holders at least three times per day for the last month. The Rush made season ticket holders purchase all three playoff games upfront if they wanted to secure their seats. This is a common practice in the NHL, but it’s something that the NLL isn’t at a stage to be that much in demand to go this far. The decision upset a lot of season ticket holders, and with the West final originally scheduled for a Thursday night, many season ticket holders passed on buying them. Days after the deadline for season ticket holders to buy their seats, and those that didn’t had their seats released for the West final, the game was switched to a Sunday. This on top of the fact that the Rush increased the ticket prices for the playoffs. It was a massive miscalculation, and a miscalculation that may cost them season ticket holders next year.
As for game 2 of the final, the Blue Cross Arena is nowhere near sold out either. To make matters worse, tickets are going for $20 in the lower bowl and $15 in the upper bowl so the gate revenue, and in turn the player bonuses, will be minimal. The fact that Rochester didn’t win game 1 and they can’t win the NLL Cup at home won’t help matters to get people to come out.
This begs the question again, should the NLL be looking at wrapping up the playoffs by the end of April, or at the latest, the first week of May? The playoff numbers all playoffs long have been embarrassing for the most part. The playoffs are the time of the year when the crowds should be the largest, and not the smallest. Clearly, the NLL needs to take this seriously.
I got game 1 right, but didn’t have anywhere near the spread called. As for game 2, if Sid Smith isn’t available to go (he can return if he is a level 1 IR placement) the Rochester defense will suffer again. Clearly the Knighthawks have a lot more to learn and adjust than the Rush do coming into this one.
What I see is that the Knighthawks need to make the adjustments and also hope that the Rush are overconfident coming into this game. I doubt you’ll see an overconfident Rush team and while I doubt it’s going to be a 7 goal spread again I don’t see the Rush losing this one.
First Pick of the Expansion Draft
On Stealth Classified, Jake Elliott and Brad Challoner were talking expansion draft with Pat Gregoire. And a big thanks as always for the plugs. The discussion was over who you would take first in the expansion draft, and whether you should take the first pick in the expansion draft or entry draft. Each of them made some good points as to who that player should be. One thought was to take Frank Scigliano and make sure your goaltending is secured. A second thought was that if San Diego had the pick was to take Adrian Sorichetti who would be a face for the organization.
Here’s my argument against that. I agree that Frank Scigliano will be the best goalie out there, but the drop to Zach Higgins isn’t massive. Sorichetti may be a good face to the franchise, but not the first pick. In my mind you have to take the best player out there. And you need a goal scorer. If these teams are being built correctly, they’re looking to win the championship in five years’ time, not next year. But what you do need in the opening year is a team that can score that will excite fans. These two teams will likely absorb several losses, but if you have a high scoring team, you will draw fans.
That being said, the best player exposed in the draft and a guy that can score that would be my first pick in the expansion draft is Kiel Matisz. If Georgia protects Matisz, you take whichever forward they expose in his place.
I would think that Scigliano would be a high draft pick, but once he is taken, Higgins may not go until round 7 because the team that doesn’t take Scigliano knows that the team that does likely won’t draft two goalies. I also agree that Rush players will go relatively early in the draft. There are a lot of players exposed for the Rush and once one player goes, the second will go almost immediately after as the Rush can only lose one more.
A reminder to all NLL fans in Canada that the season doesn’t end when the NLL Finals are over. There is lots of junior lacrosse, MSL, WLA, Senior B and a multitude of other options to help you get your fix.
I’ve managed to make it out for Saskatchewan SWAT games whenever I can. It was great to see a few weeks ago the SWAT honouring Dayna Brons, their late trainer who was killed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. The Humboldt family was well represented as her family came out for the ceremonial ball drop. It was also great to see a packed Kinsmen Arena for the event. Unfortunately, the game was a blowout with the SWAT beating the Edmonton Blues 10-0. Yes nothing. How that’s possible in the modern game is unbelievable.
The SWAT are getting a lot of help with a 16 year old goalie Laine Hruska. You normally don’t expect much from a 16 year goalie other than get him in a few games here and there and get him some experience. If Hruska keeps playing the way he is, you might see him at the Minto Cup. As Calgary is the host this year, the top two teams in the Rocky Mountain Lacrosse League go to the Minto, which makes this season all the more important.
— Saskatchewan SWAT (@JuniorSWATlax) May 27, 2018
One thing that is clear is that the RMLL is underrated when it comes to its top teams. There is a Subway ranking out there for Junior A teams. Now this ranking has its limitations. The person in charge of it clearly doesn’t have the ability to watch all of the games, especially when some teams don’t webcast their games. That being said, out of the top 10 teams on the rankings, nine always come from BC or Ontario. Let’s be straight about this. The Calgary Mountaineers are a top 5 team in Canada. In my opinion, they’ll cruise to the RMLL title and the Minot Cup this year. The Saskatchewan SWAT were on that list since the start of the year, this despite losing to both the Mounties and Raiders on a road trip a few weeks ago. However, having beaten the Raiders two straight this past weekend, the SWAT do belong in the top 10.
Now do I expect the Mounties to beat Coquitlam this year, a team that will feature Christian Del Bianco? No. But.. they won’t get blown out. And the RMLL teams do deserve more respect in those rankings.
For those in Saskatoon, make a point of going to see the SWAT the next time they are in Saskatoon on June 23 and 24. They’ll be playing the Mounties, and you will be watching two of the three teams that will be battling it out for those two spots in the Minto Cup.
Until next time…
For all the latest updates, follow me on Twitter @evanschemenauer