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Welcome To The Roc: Toronto At Rochester

The Rochester Knighthawks welcome the Toronto Rock to the Blue Cross Arena on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET as part of NLL Face Off Weekend 2015 to open the National Lacrosse League’s 29th season. Watch the opener live on NLL LIVE via NLL.com in the U.S. and TSN.ca in Canada.

The Knighthawks are coming off their historical three-peat as league champions and return to the turf where they defeated the Calgary Roughnecks 3-2 in the decisive Game 3 tiebreaker game to end the 2014 season.

“We’re excited to get going especially at home,” said Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen. “Just seeing our fans and getting our feet underneath us. There’s not a better place to start than at home. We’re looking for a loud crowd this weekend.”

Rochester once again is coming off a championship season and is taking the same mentality into this season opener as every other one in years past.

“We always have the same mindset every season, every training camp, and that’s to win a championship,” said Rochester defenseman Mike Kirk. “We’ve kind of forgotten about what we’ve done the past few years, and we’re focused on this Saturday and that’s the game with Toronto…We’ve got our routines and our systems and we just go about our way and try to put ourselves in a good position to win games.”

The 2015 edition of the Knighthawks is a bit different from last year’s edition. The main players are still there, with IL Indoor’s sixth-ranked NLL player Matt Vinc still in goal and their number one player Cody Jamieson still leading the offense. However, Johnny Powless who was fourth on the team in scoring last season is gone, along with Joel McCready who turned in some very clutch plays this past season.

Enter forwards Jordan Hall, who was acquired via draft day trade, and newly-signed veteran Aaron Wilson.

“Both of them are good quality team-first guys,” coach Hasen said. “Wilson’s probably one of the better off-ball players in this league, and he’s been that way for a very long time. You turn your head and he’s going to find an opening. The guys on our team are always looking for those guys cutting and will find them, and they’ll have lots of opportunities.

Jordan, he just brings a different skill set. He’s so quick and he’s so smart…he’s going to take a lot of pressure off [Jamieson]. He’s also going to work hard off the ball and get himself open and get his teammates open. Quality guys. It’s tough, you can’t replace Joel McCready or Johnny Powless.”

Meanwhile, the Rock will get a chance to test a new-look team that includes six new faces to the opening day roster against one the league’s all-time best dynamos. While the Rock carry a dramatically different roster – the most notable changes being the absence of Colin Doyle and Garrett Billings – the Knighthawks land in 2015 with virtually the same list of players with Dan Dawson and Cody Jamieson surely to lead the way once again. Toronto, like many others around the league, had its hands full with Rochester losing all three times against the 14-4 powerhouse last season.

“It’s always a difficult place to start – Rochester being the defending champion, but it’s a good place to gauge where you are early in the season,” said Rock head coach John Lovell, who enters his second season as coach after posting a 9-9 record in 2014.

The Rock, an offseason removed from a 15-13 first round playoff loss to the Buffalo Bandits on home floor, will look to rebound, offsetting the stark inconsistencies of a .500 2014 season. The effort however will not include two of their top players in Doyle (out for the season with a torn rotator cuff) and Billings (out indefinitely with a torn ACL) leaving the Rock with two massive and likely irreplaceable holes on offense. The two combined for 173 points (63+110) last season. Their 63 goals accounted for nearly 30 percent of the team’s goal scoring over the entire regular season.

“Our offense has been pretty solid for us for a number of years, but we can’t replace [Billings and Doyle],” Lovell said. “We’re not thinking of those things. We have to deal with what we have, we like what we have. We can’t worry about guys that aren’t going to be there because they’re not going to be there,” he said.

Last season’s 2014 acquisition of Kevin Ross from the former Philadelphia Wings (now known as the New England Black Wolves after relocating this offseason) could prove as an important move as Lovell looks to the nine-year veteran as a possible band-aid fix to a seemingly diminished offense.

“Kevin Ross has been a pretty decent player in this league for a number of years, we’re hoping he can replace a little of what Colin Doyle brought,” said Lovell.

Ross, in two games last season with Toronto, posted eight points (2+6). The 29-year-old from Toronto is three seasons removed from scoring a career-high 28 goals with the Minnesota Swarm.

Despite the woeful reality of missing two of the league’s best all-time players, Lovell still has high belief that Toronto will find ways to hit the net, at least on an adequate bases. Josh Sanderson, Stephan Leblanc, Rob Hellyer and Kasey Beirnes each scored 50 or more points with at least 20 goals scored.

“I think Josh Sanderson is still one of the premiere guys in the league, he’s good with the ball and he can find people. Stephan Leblanc is coming off of a pretty solid season and we need his to repeat that,” said Lovell, who saw his team net 219 goals last season, good enough for tops in the East Division.

Without ambivalence, the Rock made several offseason moves to improve their defensive play, a glaring weakness which proved vital many times last season. The Rock surrendered 12 or more goals ten times last season including their playoff loss to Buffalo. Toronto will largely look to the additions of transition players Brodie Merrill and Brock Sorensen as well as defender Jeff Gilbert to tighten the screws on the back end.

“We made some changes defensively because we identified that as an area that needed to get better. I think we’ve done that with [those] acquisitions,” said Lovell.

Those three new pieces, dubbed as the saving grace for Toronto’s lackluster defense, have combined for 274 games played. Each player proved to have a knack for capturing loose balls as a combined 367 were posted among the three of them.

“I think it’s been a positive change for me. It’s been different in many ways, it’s been a little rejuvenating,” said Merrill, who will play alongside his brother Patrick for the first time in the NLL.

Story by Jeremy Pike (@KnighthawksBeat) and Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) for NLL.com.