For the first time since becoming an expansion team in the National Lacrosse League, the Rochester Knighthawks will play in a postseason game.
Coming into the 2022-23 campaign, expectations were not overly high for the Knighthawks, who only had a combined six wins through their first two seasons, the first of which was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fast forward to this season, Rochester stormed out with six straight wins before ending the slate with a 10-8 record and a berth in the postseason.
The team’s significant turnaround was not a goal for the organization to head in the right direction, but instilled belief across the league that the Knighthawks were a force to be reckoned with.
And with that also came a level of much-earned respect. A season of change and growth for the Knighthawks allowed them to become the Cinderella story of the National Lacrosse League, soon garnering the attention that this was an organization on the rise.
“As a competitive team, we knew we would have some growing pains,” said Knighthawks general manager Dan Carey. “Losing is not okay and it has not been fun. There is a process, and for us to have sustained success, we knew were going to be patient. We still have a lot of guys who are young in their experience, but the message has always been the same: ‘stick with the process and we will be competing for a championship’.”
Truer words have never been spoken as the playoff-bound Knighthawks open the postseason with a winner-take-all showdown against the first-place Buffalo Bandits on Saturday, May 6 at KeyBank Center.
The start of the playoffs means the beginning of a new season and an opportunity to hit the reset button.
“The playoffs are a new situation,” head coach Mike Hasen said ahead of the weekend’s matchup with Buffalo. “We are able to reset after the regular season, but the situation is enough motivation for our guys to get up for the game.”
“I think you do rely on past experiences,” said Connor Fields, who finished fifth in the league in scoring with 112 points and helped the Bandits reach the NLL Finals last year. “You learn from those experiences and now I feel I have a good feel for the NLL Playoffs. They are truly another season. I feel comfortable and confident going into them this year as we have a lot of people in the organization who have had success in the playoffs.”
Despite this weekend representing the playoff debut for the franchise, the Knighthawks players are certainly no stranger to postseason play.
Aside from Fields, Thomas Hoggarth and Matt Gilray have reached the Finals with Buffalo while Holden Cattoni and Turner Evans both have appeared in the postseason. Dan Coates has played in the Western Conference Finals twice with the Colorado Mammoth while Brad Gillies helped the previous Knighthawks franchise make the playoffs.
Knighthawks captain Paul Dawson won a pair of NLL titles with the previous franchise while Hasen guided the club to three straight championships and remains the only coach in league history to ever do so. Current assistant coach and former goaltender Pat O’Toole appeared in the playoffs five straight seasons, claiming the league’s title three consecutive seasons from 2012-14 and winning one as a player in 2007. Gavin Prout, who is in his first season with Rochester as an assistant under Hasen, won the championship back in 2006 as a player.
Of Rochester’s current roster, nine players have appeared in at least one playoff game, totaling 38 goals and 65 assists for 103 points in 73 career playoff contests.
“It’s something special,” Dawson said when asked about what it means to be back in the playoffs. “When I signed back here a few seasons ago, it was a goal to build a team and bring a playoff team back to Rochester.”
Tomorrow, we battle. pic.twitter.com/6kFlCBRzBa
— Rochester Knighthawks (@RocKnighthawks) May 5, 2023
“There has been a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and hard work by everyone in the organization but it very special to get back to the playoffs,” Dawson said.
The two rivals split the season-series with each winning in its home building. Both games were decided by three goals and during each contest, the winning club had one quarter where they were held to just one goal. Rochester had the slight advantage in shots (118-113) while they each tallied 25 goals in the two games.
“They (the Bandits) have clinched first overall in our league for a reason,” said Carey. They are a well-rounded team; they’ve got a world class goaltender that has been at the top of our league for a long time. Their offense is very dynamic, and they have got a lot of weapons. Their defense is big, strong, imposing and they can run.”
But as much of a juggernaut Buffalo is perceived to be, the Knighthawks are excited for the challenge – and opportunity – that awaits them come Saturday as they make their franchise postseason debut.
After a successful regular season, the team is shifting all their focus to the playoffs and taking on a very tough Bandits team.
— Rochester Knighthawks (@RocKnighthawks) May 4, 2023
“We have our hands full as they have a great team,” Carey said. “They were close last year to winning a championship. They are going to be very hungry to get back to that championship. We are excited. We are excited for this opportunity to go against, what could be considered arguably the best team in the league.”
“There is no tomorrow,” Hasen said. “We have to be ready to play right off the opening face-off.”
The Quarterfinal contest between the Knighthawks and Bandits from KeyBank Center will be carried live on ESPNU, ESPN+ and TSN+ and it can also be heard locally on Big 107.3 FM.