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Rush, Knighthawks gearing up for NLL's Champions Cup

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The Canadian Press
5/16/2012 3:51:08 PM
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Try to find somebody, anybody, who predicted before the National Lacrosse League season began that the Champion's Cup game this Saturday night would send the Edmonton Rush into Rochester to play the Knighthawks.

Any luck yet? No? Thought so.

This is a unique final -- only the second in NLL history involving teams that were both sub-.500 during the regular season.

Adding intrigue will be the arrival of Shawn Williams and Aaron Bold in Rochester for the first time since their trade to Edmonton last October.

Williams, from Oshawa, Ont., played for Rochester for 10 years and was Knighthawks captain last season, while Victoria-born Bold was the understudy to goaltender Matt Vinc of St. Catharines, Ont.

The two finalists are peaking at the right time. Rochester eliminated Philadelphia before knocking off the defending champion Rock 17-13 in the East final in Toronto. Edmonton meanwhile upset No. 1 overall Calgary before winning the West with a 15-3 road trouncing of Minnesota last weekend.

Rochester won pro titles in 1997 and in 2007. Mike Accursi of Pelham, Ont., is the only remaining Knighthawks player from the '07 lineup. Edmonton has never won the title.

The Rush started off 2-7 this year but have gone 6-3 since signing St. Catharines-born Steve Toll to get to the final. Williams, who was Accursi's teammate on that '07 title team, said it took time for his new team's forwards to gell.

"It has had a lot to do with chemistry," said Williams. "Our defence and goaltending had some chemistry going but it took us a while to score some goals because everyone was just getting used to one another but, even at 2-7, we believed we were a good team and could get to where we wanted to be.

"We took it one game at a time, like the old saying goes, and now we're here."

He's predicting a nailbiter Saturday night.

"Both defences are very good, very athletic," said Williams. "Both goaltenders are outstanding and both offences are clicking.

"I think it'll be one of those games where last goal wins. Whoever sticks to their game plan the longest should win it."

The teams did not meet during the regular season. They haven't squared off since Feb. 26, 2011, when Rochester won 13-9 at home, and each team has been drastically altered since that night with eight Rochester and 11 Edmonton players are gone.

Rochester forward Cory Vitarelli has never played a game against Edmonton but has enough knowledge about some of the Rush players to know the Knighthawks will have their hands full.

"They're obviously playing some good lacrosse right now," said Vitarelli, who led the 'Hawks with four goals against the Rock. "We know they have an excellent goalie in Aaron and that their defence is good. On offence, they've got some young guys and others with experience, so it's a nice mix."

Rochester started out 1-4 this year and was 5-9 before putting everything together to finish 7-9 and peak for the playoffs.

"We always felt that we could make the playoffs and, if we did, we could get hot and do something," said Vitarelli, who is from Peterborough, Ont.

Vitarelli and Cody Jamieson of the Six Nations community in southern Ontario are Rochester's big offensive guns, while Zack Greer of Oshawa is Edmonton's most dynamic forward and a four-goal binge by Victoria native Ryan Ward keyed the West final win.

Rochester captain Pat McCready, who is a St. Catharines police officer, was NLL defensive player of the year in 2011, and second-year Edmonton bruiser Kyle Rubisch of Brampton, Ont., won the same award this year.

Both head coaches are on individual rolls.

Rochester's Mike Hasen of Brampton was 2011 NLL coach of the year and steered the Brampton Excelsiors to the Canadian major title last September. Edmonton's Derek Keenan of Oshawa was an assistant coach on Canada's world championship team last May and coached the Whitby Warriors to the Canadian junior title last summer. Now they've got their NLL teams in the Champion's Cup game.

"We've played well defensively all year, we've had solid goaltending, and the offence started to come around late in the season," said Keenan. "We've put the whole package together at the right time."

If anything worries Keenan, it's Rochester's diverse offence.

"Real deep in scoring is the way I see them," he said. "They've got seven or eight guys who can put the ball in the net. They're the whole package. They're a complete team top to bottom."

Knighthawks coach Mike Hasen said he's tried to get his players to simplify things and not try to do too much. Know your role and concentrate on that, he preaches. He's well aware that Edmonton comes in hot.

"Their record does them no justice by any means," he said. "Their goaltender has been dynamite for them all year, their defence is young and quick and in your face and they've got six or seven guys who, when the ball is in their stick, are threats all the time."

Blue Cross Arena holds about 11,000 and is the oldest venue in the nine-team league. Home floor shouldn't give Rochester an edge because visiting teams have done amazingly well all year in the NLL.

"We're going to prepare like it's any other game for us and go out there and do our best," said Hasen.

Kyle Rubisch  (Photo: Dale MacMillan)

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(Photo: Dale MacMillan)
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