A Knighthawks' Transformation

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The Rochester Knighthawks won’t have a part in the 2019 NLL Playoffs, but they enjoyed their role as a spoiler against many teams who were fighting for a playoff berth or battling for playoff positioning.

“Playing that spoiler role has been gratifying,” Knighthawks newcomer forward Ryan Benesch said. “I felt kind of bad that we knocked [the Warriors] out of the playoffs, but it also felt good knowing we can beat teams giving it their all. Hopefully, we can win this weekend and take all this momentum into next year.”

Benesch was the team’s most prolific scorer during the five-game stretch. He had 26 points in that span including 14 goals. The Knighthawks face-off star, Jake Withers, who was another one of the team’s notable studs during their run, believes that knowing that they could have hurt team’s chances from making the playoffs was a subconscious motivator.

“A win is a win at the end of the day, but that’s been in the back of our heads,” said Withers. “We understand that teams are going to be coming into games with that mindset. We’ve known that we’ve had to elevate our game when we’re playing against a team that is playing for their lives. It’s defiantly helped us dig deep when we’ve needed it.”

It was nearly a month before the season ended that the Knighthawks were mathematically eliminated from the NLL Playoffs. But, since March 31st, the team was 4-1 to complete their year.

During their impressive run to the finish line, the Knighthawks beat the New England Black Wolves on the road, who were then attempting to clinch a playoff spot at the end of March, the Toronto Rock, who were challenging for an East Division home playoff game, the Colorado Mammoth who were prevented from clinching their playoff berth and then knocking the Vancouver Warriors out of contention last weekend.

But what’s changed? How has a team that was 2-11 turnaround and string together four consecutive wins in their last five games?

For one, Styres reworked the Knighthawks back-end by shipping defensemen Paul Dawson, Ian Llord and Scott Campbell out west, but shoring up the attacking side by trading for Ryan Benesch, Chris Boushy, and, when he returns from injury next season, Stephen Keogh. In mid-March, head coach Mike Hasen and his staff also made an in-house substitution by replacing Angus Goodleaf in net with Warren Hill.

After GM Curt Styres made a flurry of moves around the NLL Trade Deadline, three things were certain: Key players returned from injury, others proved their worth on their new squad, and goaltender Warren Hill was in remarkable form.

“We’ve been playing a lot more loose and carefree,” said Hasen. “That’s sped up our game, and everyone has been able to capitalize on the opportunities they’ve been given.” 

"There’s been a fire in our belly. We’ve got a lot of young guys out there fighting for a spot, and they want to keep that opportunity.”

While the pressure was off in terms of playoff expectations, those opportunities for young players such as forwards Dawson Theede and Boushy, or defensemen James Barclay and Mike Manley are critical for determining their futures. And they’ve all played essential roles in the team’s final stretch.

There’s no better example of a so-called unknown taking every advantage he’s had on the floor than Warren Hill. Before this weekend’s loss but since taking over for Angus Goodleaf as the Knighthawks primary netminder on March 15th, Hill has become an exceptional goaltender.

During the team’s four-game win streak, Hill had a goals against average of 8.25 and made at least 50 saves twice. For a player who had logged just over 100 minutes in his two-year career up to that point, Hill’s play has helped a youthful back-end look almost impenetrable. His performances have earned the respect of  his teammates and coaches alike and has received plenty of credit from Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen.

“It’s all about taking the opportunities that you’re given when something comes up, and [Hill] has done that,” said Hasen “When he was given that chance he took the bull by the horns, and he’s running with it. He has made some key late saves for us during this run.”

With a busy off-season ahead for the Knighthawks (soon to be Halifax Thunderbirds) efforts like Hill’s give hope to this franchise that is looking for their goaltender of the future. At 32 years of age, Goodleaf has plenty of tread left on his tires, so Hasen knows that he, Styres and the organization have a big decision to make this off-season when it comes to choosing them man between the pipes. 

“[Hill] has given us that confidence that our goaltending is going to be good,” said Hasen. “Between Hill and [Goodleaf] there’s going to be a good opportunity for both of them going forward.”

It may be tough to decide who to protect on the roster this summer, but the team got some of its identity back from their 2018 NLL Cup appearance run with Jake Withers and Austin Shanks having been inserted back into the lineup after their battles with injury. 

The timing is poor, but a winning streak is a winning streak. Developing a reliable core as they had during their run to the NLL Cup in 2018 is a primary goal for the Knighthawks going forward. 2019 has not been the Knighthawks year, but Withers believes that what the they have developed through this final stretch and will turn into a serious threat next season.

“I think we have a really good core group of guys,” said Withers. “It’ll be interesting to see who the team protects [in the off-season] - but hopefully we can keep a lot of the core guys we’ve had going during this run, and we go into next year hitting the ground running and build off what we’ve done this last half of the season.”

Adam Levi