The West Division champion Calgary Roughnecks host the East Division champion Rochester Knighthawks for Game One of the 2014 NLL Champion’s Cup Finals series at Scotiabank Saddledome on Saturday, May 24 at 7 p.m. MT.
The Knighthawks and Roughnecks played once during the regular season on February 22 in Calgary with the Roughnecks coming out on top in the back-and-forth game by a score of 11-10.
Last week, facing a must-win twice in one night, Rochester defeated the Buffalo Bandits 13-8 in Game Two of the NLL East Division Finals. The Knighthawks then needed to go to sudden death overtime in a mini-game tie-breaker to punch their ticket to the Champion’s Cup Finals and a shot at a third straight title with a 2-1 victory.
“It was intensity-filled for 75 minutes,” Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen said. “Right from the get go in Game Two to the mini-game, it was intense and it was loud. It was entertaining to say the least, especially that little mini-game and the overtime there. So we’ll take it. They had lots of opportunities and their ‘D’ and ‘Vno’ came up big, and I know we had quite a few opportunities in that mini-game and ‘Coz’ and their ‘D’ came up big as well. So it was good to see, it was nice nice to see ‘Dogger’ [Cory Vitarelli] get the big one and allowing us to have the opportunity to move forward here.”
“It was a huge goal for us,” said Knighthawks forward Cody Jamieson. “It was something he doesn’t normally do. He had to run and go get the ball from up top, and he had to help out, help the ‘D’ get the ball up the floor, and I think he just saw his opening. I think he shocked all of us with how fast he started running and he placed a nice shot, a nice shot over Cosmo. I was real happy for him.”
Now, the focus for Rochester shifts from celebrating the big series win over their Thruway rivals to Calgary and a shot at history in the form of a third-straight Champion’s Cup victory.
“We’re looking forward to getting out there and playing against these guys,” coach Hasen said. “But we know that building is going to be loud as it was the first time they hosted Edmonton. And they’re playing well. Early in the season they took it to us. We don’t see them that often, but we have been watching a lot of film lately. We’re just looking forward to getting out to Calgary and getting going on this. We know it’s going to be a tough battle right from the get-go.”
“Their ‘D’ is playing really well, Poulin is playing great,” coach Hasen continued. “Every time they stick five guys on the floor, we know they’re going to have an opportunity to put it in the net. We’ve got to be at our best, we’ve got to be a lot better than we were against Buffalo, we know that, and it’s going to be a tough one.”
“It’s every team’s goal to be here at the end of the year, and we’re no different,” Jamieson said. “We haven’t really spoken of last year or the year before at all. This is a totally new group, a totally new team. Our goals at the start of the year remain the same though. We’re really excited to be back, really excited to get this thing going. We know we’re up for one heck of a battle going on. I don’t even know if I’ve ever beat Calgary. We know that we’re up against a battle and we’re looking forward to it.”
In the last series, the Knighthawks had to come back after losing Game One on the road in Buffalo and pull off winning Game Two, then the mini-game. Avoiding that situation would increase the chances of Rochester hoisting the Champion’s Cup for a third straight season, but it is not an easy task.
“We’ve just got to maintain our focus for an entire sixty minutes,” coach Hasen said. “We were able to do that for the second game there against ‘Buff’. It’s just not get too high and not get too low. The building’s going to be rocking, Calgary is going to be doing everything in their power to make sure they come out with that win. We’ve just got to be at our best. Just focus and take the highs and take the lows and just be as even-keeled as we possibly can. It’s up to each individual, to each player, just to worry about their job and not try to do too much.”
“I think as an offense, we’ve just got to move our feet, move the ball,” Jamieson said. “Do what we try and do best. Spread out the defense, and we do that by moving our feet and moving the ball. I don’t think it’s a secret that we’ve got a really really good offense, but I think their defense is very underrated. I’ve played against Poulin in the past and I’ve also played with him, and he’s a great goalie who makes the big saves when he needs to. I think it’s going to be one good series, one tough series.”
The Roughnecks did the impossible last weekend by defeating the NLL’s top-seeded team, the Edmonton Rush. After winning the first of two games, the ‘Necks travelled to Edmonton last weekend to finish the job, and finish they did.
After getting off to a terrible start — trailing 11-2 early in the second quarter — the Riggers were able to find some life in the second half and almost completed a comeback victory, but fell short, losing in regulation 15-13. The Riggers and Rush then played a 10-minute mini-game to decide the victor. Shawn Evans of the ‘Necks did what he does best, scoring twice and helping his team leap into the finals, beating the Rush 2-1 to move on the Champion’s Cup Finals against the two-time defending champion Knighthawks.
Roughnecks head coach Curt Malawsky and company went into the series as underdogs, but soon silenced any critics that thought they couldn’t win.
“We didn’t get the start that we wanted, but our guys stuck with it and kept on battling,” he said. “It could have been easy for us to just sit by and go ‘you know what, we’ll just save it for that 10-minute mini-game’ but our guys have too much compete and too much pride…They were happy with their efforts and I was happy with their efforts.”
Calgary captain Andrew McBride was proud of his team for rebounding from an early deficit and for never giving up.
“We were very excited up in Edmonton to be able to get the job done,” he said. “It was a hostile environment, their crowd was really fired up and they took it to us early. Kudos to the guys for really battling back on the bench and I think it really carried forward the momentum into the mini-game and allowed us to do some things we wanted to do.”
After overcoming the obstacle of what was the Rush, the hard work continues as the ‘Necks will face the Knighthawks, who are now looking to win their third-consecutive title.
“They’re a very physical, very big team,” said Malawsky. “If you settle for the outside looks, then you’re going to be in for a long night. They’ve got the world-class goaltender in Matt Vinc and their offence is so dynamic. They’re two-time champs and they’ve got the experience on their side as well, so it’s going to be a big challenge for our guys and we’re excited to start back in the ‘Dome.”
The Roughnecks and Knighthawks have only met once this season which saw the ‘Necks come out on top after rallying for five goals in the fourth quarter to win in a tight game at the Saddledome, 11-10. But Malawsky knows that this is a different team than the one they played earlier in the season.
“They got a great club from top to bottom, he said. “We played them in early February and we were able to get a couple goals late to pull that one out, so it’s a whole different animal when we played them back then then they’re going to be now.”
McBride and his teammates haven’t seen a lot of their opponent this year other than on game film, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re up against.
“Rochester, the two-time NLL Champions, we got a lot of respect for those guys from top to bottom,” McBride said. “Anytime a team can climb the ladder of your league two years in a row, it just shows as a franchise and as an organization how good they are.”
Dating back into the regular season, the Roughnecks have won eight of their last 10 games, nine of 11 if you include the mini-game. This is a group of guys that have a lot of momentum going into the finals.
“We got a lot of confidence right now,” Malawsky said. “Obviously this is going to be the toughest game of the season and we wouldn’t want it any other way to play the champs, so we’re excited.”
McBride couldn’t agree more with his head coach.
“We’re really excited for the challenge,” he said. “To be able to play the best team the past two years is going to be exciting for us. We’re really excited to get started at home, it’s going to be an electric atmosphere and hopefully we can key on that and really jump off to a good start. It’s going to be a great series and it’s going to come down to one-possession games, each game, and we’re looking forward to it.”
Coach Malawsky, who won the NLL Championship with the Roughnecks as a player in 2009, said this is a great opportunity for his players to make memories and to just enjoy themselves to the very end in this experience.
“At the end of the day, it’s about the players,” he said. “It’s about them winning. I’ve won as a player in the NLL and it’s a lot different being a player. You coach for the players, as a coach if you’re successful, all your hard work you’re rewarded for it, but at the end of the day, it’s about the players. You want those guys to go through the exhilaration, the joy and the long lasting friendships that you were able to go through when you won. Those are the things as a coach that you work for so they can enjoy some of the positives that come out of winning a championship.”