TONIGHT’S GAME OVERVIEW
The new iteration of the oldest rivalry in the 38-year history of the National Lacrosse League will be renewed tonight in Western New York as the Rochester Knighthawks (3-3) look to a halt a three-game skid against the defending NLL champion Buffalo Bandits (4-3) at KeyBank Center. The 7:30 p.m. contest will be the second and final meeting between the intrastate rivals this season and will be carried live on Big 107.3 FM as well as ESPN+.
The Knighthawks look to avoid the season sweep at the hands of the Bandits, whose five-goal run to open the fourth quarter was enough for Buffalo to come away with a 15-13 win in the previous meeting just two weeks prior in Rochester. Despite the Knighthawks erupting for a season-high seven first-quarter goals and holding the Bandits to a scoreless third quarter, becoming the first team this season to do so, Buffalo ultimately pulled away in the fourth, spoiling Rochester’s bid for its third straight home win. Ryan Smith and Kyle Waters each had four-goal nights, with Smith going on to add five assists to match a career-high nine points while Connor Fields and Thomas McConvey each finished with seven points on two goals and five assists. As the Knighthawks make their way to Buffalo looking to snap a their three-game slide, they do so also in search of their first-ever win inside the unfriendly confines of KeyBank Center. The Bandits have claimed six of the first seven matchups between the two teams dating back to the Knighthawks’ inaugural 2019-20 campaign, including the three all-time meetings in Buffalo, with Rochester’s only win over that span coming on Jan. 20 of last season. In addition to the renewal of one of the NLL’s fiercest rivalries tonight, the matchup itself features two of the NLL’s top three scoring teams. The Knighthawks, who won their first three games of the season for the second straight year, come into the weekend tied with Halifax averaging 13.00 goals per game, tied with Halifax for most in the league. Buffalo sits at a close second, averaging 12.71 goals per game through its first seven games of the season while also leading the NLL with 89 goals scored.
LAST TIME OUT
Despite another three-goal performance from Connor Fields, the Knighthawks fell behind early and were unable to overcome their deficit, dropping a 13-8 final in Halifax to the Thunderbirds this past Saturday night at Scotiabank Centre. Fields’ hat trick is his fourth in six games this season. The second-year Knighthawk has registered at least two goals in each game this season. Including Fields, 10 Knighthawks found the score sheet Saturday night, including four players who posted multiple points with Ryan Lanchbury (0+2), Ethan O’ Connor (1+1), and Ryan Smith (2+0) joining Fields. Ben Macdonnell, Rochester’s 16th overall pick in the 2023 NLL Entry Draft, and Taylor Jensen each made their professional debuts with Macdonnell scoring his first goal on his only shot of the contest.
100 AND COUNTING FOR HASEN
The 13-11 home win over Vancouver back on Dec. 23 came with historical significance in the fact that not only did the Knighthawks enjoy a 3-0 start for the second straight year, but it also served as the 100th win for Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen, who became just the sixth coach in league history to reach 100 career wins. Hasen surpassed legendary head coach Les Bartley for sixth all-time following the win over Halifax on Feb. 11 of last season, making him one of three finalists for the 2023 NLL Coach of the Year. He also joined elite company back on March 25 in Las Vegas, when he was behind the bench for his 200th regular-season game, a feat only five others in league history have accomplished before him. He became just the sixth head coach – and third last season behind Georgia’s Ed Comeau and Vancouver’s Troy Cordingley – to have coached 200 National Lacrosse League games. Hasen also owns the distinction of being the only member of the prestigious group to reach the mark having spent his entire career in the same city. One of the most decorated coaches in league history, Hasen is certainly no stranger to Rochester, having previously served as head coach of the former Knighthawks franchise from 2011 to 2019. Hasen’s most successful run at the helm of the Knighthawks came from 2012-14 when he made National Lacrosse League history by leading Rochester to an unprecedented three straight Champion’s Cups. Hasen, who was named the NLL Coach of the Year in 2011, remains the only NLL bench boss to accomplish the feat.
BROTHERLY LOVE IN BUFFALO
Caught in the crossfire of an already intense conflict that exists between Buffalo and Rochester is a divided family, quite literally standing on opposites sides of the floor. While tonight mainly represents the latest chapter in what is widely regarded as the best rivalry in the NLL, it’s also the first opportunity that Rochester’s Taylor Jensen and Buffalo’s Josh Byrne, maternal half-brothers, will square off against one another at the professional level. As a defenseman, Jensen, who made his pro debut last week in Halifax, will be tasked at containing Byrne, his older brother of four years, who currently leads the NLL in scoring with 47 points and is tied for second with 29 assists. Despite being at different points within their respective careers, Jensen and Byrne both have winning pedigrees when it comes to lacrosse. Byrne led the Bandits to their most recent NLL championship in 2023 while also being a key member of the Chaos Lacrosse Club’s Premier Lacrosse League title in 2021. Jensen, meanwhile, is a two-time NCAA National Champion at Rochester Institute of Technology, having led the Tigers to back-to-back Division III championships in 2021 and 2022.
Coming into this weekend, the Knighthawks currently rank ninth in the NLL with 477 total shots for, 336 of which have been on goal, and are second behind only Halifax in average shots per game (79.50). Rochester has outshot the opposition in four of its first six games this season, including twice topping the 60-shot mark at home. The Knighthawks are 2-2 this season when outshooting the opponent and 2-2 when surpassing the 50-shot mark. Connor Fields set the new franchise record for the most shots in a game with 21 in the 17-14 loss at San Diego on Dec. 29, besting the 18 he had against Calgary on Dec. 2. Averaging over 15 shots per game, he’s currently tied for second in the NLL with 91 shots.
Second-year face-off specialist Joe Post has been nearly unbeatable at the center dot this season, winning 107 face-offs on 178 attempts for a 60.1% success rate. His 107 wins rank fifth in the NLL while his 63 loose ball recoveries are also fifth-most. Post’s 24 face-off wins last month in Saskatchewan set the new single-game mark, far surpassing his own record of 19 he set in the 2022-23 regular-season finale against Philadelphia on April 29. Dating back to his rookie season, Post, who played his collegiate lacrosse at nearby St. John Fisher University, has won 170-of-309 career face-off attempts, good for a 55.0% efficiency rate.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER FLOCK TOGETHER
After emerging as one of the most dynamic and productive scoring duos in the NLL a season ago, Connor Fields and Ryan Smith have again burst on the scene with the Knighthawks in 2023-24. The forwards have combined for 36 goals and 72 points through Rochester’s first six games, making them the fifth-most point-producing twosome in the league. Only Buffalo’s Josh Byrne and Dhane Smith, Albany’s Alex Simmons and Ethan Walker, Georgia’s Shayne Jackson and Lyle Thompson, and San Diego’s Wesley Berg and Austin Staats have collectively recorded more points this season. Even more impressively, Fields and Smith are the only teammates in the league to each have at least 18 goals and 35 points. Coming into this weekend, Fields and Smith rank 11th and 15th in scoring among the NLL’s top point-getters, respectively, while Fields continue to pace all forwards with 52 loose ball recoveries. With another multi-goal effort against Halifax last week, the East Amherst native has now scored two or more goals in 23 straight games dating back to last season. Smith, who’s fresh off a career-high nine-point performance against Buffalo on Jan. 13, has scored a hat trick in five of his first six appearances this season. He also leads the team with nine power-play points, including four goals.
SCOUTING THE BANDITS
Winners in three of their last four, the defending NLL champs return home on the heels of a 16-14 win over the Toronto Rock last Saturday at FirstOntario Centre. Trailing 10-9 entering the fourth quarter, the Bandits opened the final frame with seven straight unanswered goals from seven different goal-scorers, the most by a team in a single quarter this season. Buffalo’s high-powered offense has scored a league-leading 89 goals this season, reaching the 12-goal mark in six of its first seven games. For the second straight year, the Bandits own the NLL’s top two point-getters in Josh Byrne and two-time NLL MVP Dhane Smith, who rank first and second in the league in scoring, respectively, and have combined for 25 goals and 68 points this season. The well-balanced Bandits return all but two players from last year’s championship squad, including veteran netminder Matt Vinc, who’s back for his fifth season in Buffalo and 18th overall. An eight-time NLL Goaltender of the Year, Vinc spent eight seasons with the previous Knighthawks franchise, backstopping the team to three straight NLL championships. Vinc recently became the first netminder in league history to play more than 15,000 minutes. Smith needs only four more points to become the 14th player all-time to reach 1,000 career points.