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Final Four: Knighthawks Knock Off Rock, 11-7

Keeping their hopes alive to come back and win the East Division, the Rochester Knighthawks (8-4) defeated the Toronto Rock (11-4) on the road by a score of 11-7 before a crowd of 10,218 at Air Canada Centre on Friday night.

Rochester now sits just a game and half back from the first place Rock after Friday night’s victory, leaving the East Division regular season crown up for grabs. A Toronto win and a Minnesota loss this weekend would have clinched top spot for the Rock, but a big efforts from Dan Dawson (3+3) and Matt Vinc (49 saves) negated that scenario all together.

“We had a lot of big efforts tonight,” said Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen. “(Dan) Dawson was great, he set the tone for us early. He was driving and doing stuff that we haven’t seen consistently done this year. It opens up a lot of things.”

Two wins over Toronto this season awards the Knighthawks with the regular season tie-breaker should the two teams finish with the same record. While the task is tall, this means Rochester controls their own destiny the rest of the way. If the three-time defending champs win each of their remaining six games, they will realize the East Division’s first seed.

“We circled this game as a big game for us and we knew that,” said Knighthawks forward Joe Walters. “The winner of tonight got the tie-breaker, we came in ready to go.”

Toronto’s Kasey Beirnes opened all scoring with a power play goal on the doorstep 3:06 after first whistle. Rochester however, answered strongly by scoring five-straight goals over a nine minute stretch, two of which from Dawson in close. Beirnes stopped the bleeding with another powerplay goal in the slot, capping the first quarter at a 5-2 Rochester advantage.

“It was a disappointing start,” said Rock head coach John Lovell. “We’re playing for big stakes here.”

The Knighthawks continued their dominance into the second frame as Jordan Hall, Dawson and Cody Jamieson each scored within the quarter’s first 6:04. Just over two minutes later, Stephan Leblanc and Beirnes completed 2-0 mini-run to bring the Rock to 8-4 deficit, the score standing until halftime.

Rock newcomer Kevin Crowley and Brad Self traded goals just seconds apart to open all second half scoring. After 10:26 of scoreboard silence, Knighthawk forward Joe Resetartis and Jesse Gamble swapped goals exactly one minute apart, capping the third quarter at a 10-6 Rochester advantage.

Leblanc made things interesting by scoring his second of the night early in the final frame, but stellar Knighthawk defence cancelled any chance for a Rock comeback. Jamieson scored the game’s final tally with 2:14 remaining.

Rochester’s hot start put rest to looming concerns about Week 13’s three-goal goal effort against the Edmonton Rush. On Friday night, it took only 6:21 for the Knighthawks to match a total that was conceived in sixty minutes time just six days ago.

“After last weekend, it was a huge opportunity for us to bounce back,” said Walters. We have another game tomorrow, so we just need to take one game at a time.”

Toronto meanwhile are feeling the woes of mid to late-season offensive slump. Over their last five games – a stretch that includes three of Toronto’s four losses – the Rock are averaging just 10.2 goals per game. It’s an alarming change from the 14 goals per game Toronto earned over first 10 matches.

“Our special teams have gone south on us for the last few games and that’s got to get better,” Lovell said. “Our powerplay has not performed for us like it was early in the season. Things that were going for us early are not going now…but they will come back.”

Some attribution has to go to the absents of the Rock leading scorer Rob Hellyer, who has missed two and a half games of action since suffering an upper-body injury nearly three weeks ago. The Rock have since made an attempt to patch that hole with the well-documented acquisition of Crowley from the Black Wolves in exchange for Garrett Billings. Crowley put the Rock uniform on for the first time on Friday night and chimed in with a goal and two assists.

“There’s going to be some transition time coming into a new team,” said Crowley. “But these guys on the offense are really easy to play with.”

“I thought [Matt Vinc] played great in there tonight, we had a lot of good looks, shots that hopefully next time will fall for us. The defense did a great job stopping their run,” Crowley added.

Rock goalie Brandon Miller got the start in goal, but did not last long as the veteran gave up five goals on Rochester’s first eight shots. Toronto back up Nick Rose came on in relief and played nicely. Rose made 26 saves on 32 shots for a .812 save percentage.

On the other end of the floor, Rochester netminder Matt Vinc stood very tall making 49 saves on 56 shots for an even better .875 save percentage. Friday night’s performance earns “Vno” the title of the league’s top ball stopper as he holds a league-leading .796 save percentage thus far.

Dawson (3+3) led all shooters with six points each on the night. Joe Walters (1+4) followed up with five points of his own. Beirnes (3+1) tallied four points in the loss, while Josh Sanderson (0+3) and Crowley (1+2) followed close behind with three points each.

The Knighthawks are back at it on Saturday night when they host the Minnesota Swarm at the Blue Cross Arena. The Rock meanwhile have the rest of the weekend off and will host the Vancouver Stealth on April 10.

Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:

1) Dan Dawson
2) Matt Vinc
3) Kasey Beirnes

By Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) for NLL.com. Photo by Graig Abel.