NLL: Knighthawks use big fourth quarter to remain unbeaten

Connor Fields shoots on goal. Buffalo Bandits @ Rochester Knighthawks, January 20, 2023. (Photo: Rochester Knighthawks/NLL)

Who doesn’t love a battle of the I-90 to get your Friday night going? To make that even more juicy, the Rochester Knighthawks came in as the only remaining unbeaten team in the NLL. Across from them were their rivals from just about an hour away, the Buffalo Bandits. Buffalo came in at 4-1, which had them in second place in the East Division. Blue Cross Arena was deafening for those reasons, plus the sea of black and orange that made the trip to the 585.

It’s truly hard to explain the atmosphere. Chanting back and forth, noise that made your ears ring, and above all else, playoff vibes this early in the season. There are a ton of ex-Bandits that now play for Rochester, so to say that these two teams know each other, well, that would be an understatement. Rochester used a massive fourth quarter to win the first round of the “Battle of the I-90,” beating Buffalo 15-12. Let’s get to the action already.

To begin the first quarter, there was a feeling out process of sorts. Both sides used slick and fast transition to create opportunities. Both defenses and goaltenders were hip to the task. Speaking of goaltenders, that should be a point of focus. On one side you have Matt Vinc, whose resume speaks for itself. On the other is the youngster Rylan Hartley, who has really come into his own since breaking into the league. Brad McCulley finally broke the ice with a beautiful one-timer. Ian MacKay notched his first and Dhane Smith scored on the power play to quickly make it 3-0. Thomas Hoggarth got the Knighthawks on the board to close out the quarter, making it 3-1 after one.

“We knew that was going to happen,” said Dhane Smith. “Two great teams playing against each other. This is a hard arena to play in front of, but both fans showed up and the goaltending is unbelievable on both sides.”

The second saw quite the influx of scoring. Byrne scored his second just about a minute in. Everyone, say it with me now: “lacrosse is a game of runs.” Here came Rochester. Ryan Smith rattled off two straight, the first being on the power play. Curtis Knight scored his first, not even a minute later, and all of a sudden we were tied 4-4.

Now I’m going to pause the game action for a moment, for the feel-good story of the game.

At the 10:51 mark in the second, Joel Tayler found himself in front of Hartley and buried a shot. Tayler (formally Matthews) had just scored his first goal in 2,148 days. I’m sure by now the wheels are turning, yes it’s the wily veteran from the original Rochester days. But why the name change and why the hiatus? Long story short, after a fight with drug addiction, Tayler finally found his way and got clean. Matthews became Tayler in honour of his stepfather, who stepped in and raised Joel the way a child deserves to be raised. After scoring, Tayler was noticeably ecstatic and rightfully so. Kudos to him for seeking out help, getting clean, proving the doubters wrong and getting back to the game he loves.

Tayler was extremely emotional after the game, and even a few days after.

“I felt like the last time I left the league it wasn’t on my terms,” he told our editor. “I’ve always said I want to get back and play at least one more game and prove to everyone – and myself – that I can compete at that level. I didn’t listen to anyone else on the outside and just kept believing in my own abilities and prayed that someday someone would give me another chance and I’m very grateful and thankful for the Buffalo Bandits.”

Joel Tayler shoots on Rylan Hartley. Buffalo Bandits @ Rochester Knighthawks. January 20, 2023. (Photo: Rochester Knighthawks/NLL)

Wipe your tears, we have a lot more action to unpack. Connor Fields finally got himself on the scoresheet, but was quickly answered by three straight from Smith, Brandon Robinson and Byrne’s second. 8-5 Buffalo going into the half.

Hartley and Vinc were stellar in the first half, both making timely saves that could’ve swung the momentum at any point. Vinc stopped 29 of 34, while Hartley stopped 17 of 25. Vinc also played his 14,000th career minute, an unmatched milestone.

The first goal of the third quarter wasn’t until the 7:44 mark. But after that, boy were they flowing. Ryan Smith broke the ice with his hat trick, and was followed up by Fields’ second and Matt Gilray’s first. Dhane Smith stopped the momentum with his hat trick on the power play, but only for a second as Holden Cattoni and Ryan Smith had answers shortly thereafter. Byrne got his hat trick and Dhane got his fourth to close out the quarter. 11-10 going into the final frame. Did you really expect anything less from these two teams?

The fourth quarter was all Rochester and they proved they are arguably the team to beat in this league. Rochester rattled off five-straight goals from 8:58 remaining to 2:59. Goal scorers were Fields, Ryan Smith, Cattoni, and Hoggarth. In between those goals, the Knighthawks’ defense was stifling and Hartley stopped everything that was sent his way. Buffalo tried to mount a comeback as Byrne notched his fourth with under two minutes to play, but that would be all she wrote.

Funny moment of the game was on Byrne’s fourth goal. Tehoka Nanticoke had the ball for Buffalo and lost his shoe while looking for an open man. After slipping on the turf a couple of times, he finally found Byrne, who buried his shot. Your final from Rochester, 15-12 Knighthawks.

Players of the game for Buffalo were Byrne (4+4), who reached the 300-point mark, Smith (4+2) and MacKay (1+2). Vinc was lights-out in the first half, but fell off late in the game. He stopped 46 of 61 on the night. As for Rochester, Smith (5+4), Fields (3+5) and Cattoni (3+4) led the way. Hartley was sparkling in the second half, which arguably led Rochester to victory. The young goaltender stopped 44 of 56.

“We’ve gone into a couple games this season down at the half,” said Fields. “I think we were getting a lot of opportunities out there. We were just sticking to our game plan, and I think that’s when we’re most confident.”

Buffalo (4-2) looks to avenge this loss as they travel to Philadelphia to take on the Wings (2-3), this Friday at 7 pm. Rochester (6-0) looks to stay unbeaten and continue their dominant play. The Knighthawks travel to Halifax to take on the Thunderbirds (3-3) this Friday at 6 p.m.