2012 Edmonton Rush: What went wrong, what went right

Brett Mydske was just one of many athletic defenders that made the Rush an elite defensive team. (Photo: Graig Abel)
Brett Mydske was just one of many athletic defenders that made the Rush an elite defensive team. (Photo: Graig Abel)

Where to start with the 2012 Edmonton Rush? The Rush did play for a National Lacrosse League championship, but it’s not like they rolled into the postseason with the momentum of a boulder. Starting a season with 1 win in your first 5 games and a 1-2 record in your last 3 doesn’t exactly elicit fear. But something was oddly special about the Rush as they closed in on their first NLL title. Something clicked and it clicked just in time to make a run in the postseason, where they were completely dominant in the first and second round. And, to a big degree, in the Champion’s Cup game. But 1 bad quarter led to their demise and the Rush were kicking themselves after one of those unexplainable lapses that cost them a ring. Let’s take a closer look at Edmonton’s 2012 season.

Schedule

It’s tough to argue with the end result for the Rush, but anyone who claims they saw it coming is probably stretching the truth a bit. Unless, of course, you’re a member of the Rush organization and believed all along it would happen. We’re talking about the Rush advancing to the Champion’s Cup game, of course. And after the team’s 1-4 start, not many saw the Rush playing for an NLL title much less being a contender.

The team was in a good spot early, going 1-1 after losing the opener to Colorado by a goal, then trouncing Washington by 11. But the next 3 games were on the road and the Rush lost all of them to stand at 1-4 and by the time the midpoint of the season arrived, Edmonton was 2-6. But the Rush won 3 of their next 5 to build some momentum before going 1-2 in their final 3 to finish at 6-10 for their sixth losing season in 7 years of existence.

Still, it was enough to qualify for the playoffs and the Rush beat Calgary and Minnesota — teams they were a combined 1-5 against in the regular season — to advance to the championship game, where they lost to Rochester.

Offense

The struggles on this end of the floor are nothing new for Edmonton. The offense scored 167 goals, fewest in the NLL for the fourth time in the franchise’s 7 seasons. And it was a bit surprising because coming into the season, the team did some credible work to upgrade.

It traded for Shawn Williams and Aaron Wilson along with Athan Iannucci, although AI held out and didn’t play a game for Edmonton before he was traded to Washington. Still, adding Williams to the left side and Wilson to the right was supposed to bolster the already-present sticks of Scott Evans, Corey Small, Ryan Ward and Zack Greer. But for whatever reason, the offense stalled and didn’t generate much. And on the nights that it did, a lot of the open looks just didn’t fall.

Perplexed coach Derek Keenan searched for answers all season and he even went so far as to bench Evans, saying the right-hander wasn’t in the shape he needed to be. So Evans was in the stands for 3 of the team’s final 4 games and all 3 playoff games, where the Rush compiled a 4-2 record. Whether Evans’ absence helped or hindered the Edmonton offense is up for debate but what isn’t up for debate is the result. The unit appeared to run much more smoothly and effectively than it did early in the season, the open looks were more frequent and the shots were falling. The Rush scored 83 goals in the first 8 games and 84 in the final 8, so it wasn’t so much the quantity of goals as it was the quality.

However it’s spinned, there’s no denying that the Rush found their groove on offense late in the season and it helped carry the team to the title game. And even though the Rush ended up on the short end of that game in Rochester, there are 7 other NLL teams wishing they had the same chance that Edmonton did.

Defense/Goaltending

No questions here, right from the get go. Throwing a unit on the floor with names like Kyle Rubisch, Jimmy Quinlan, Chris Corbeil, Brett Mydske and Jeff Cornwall (after a trade with Buffalo), the Rush were in good shape when it came to defense. The mid-season signing of veteran transition man Steve Toll gave the unit even more oomph. The biggest question was in goal, where the retirement of Matt Disher left the cage open for youngster Brodie MacDonald and newcomer Aaron Bold, a career backup who was acquired in a trade with the Rochester Knighthawks.

Bold won the job and there was never a question that he wasn’t the right man for the job. Factoring in a couple of overtime games, the Rush played a total of 973 minutes in 16 regular season games. Of those minutes, Bold played 951. And with all that work, he was among the league’s leaders in the big categories, ranking third among primary goaltenders in goals-against (10.47), third in saves (571) and third in save percentage (.775).

He was helped, of course, by a fantastic and athletic unit in front of him that charged a painful admission price for any opponent who entered their zone. Only Calgary (170 goals) allowed fewer than Edmonton’s 175 and by the time the playoffs arrived, the unit was an absolute machine. The Rush outscored their first 2 opponents by a combined 34-14 and in the title game they held Rochester to 1 goal in the first half. And even in losing that game, they gave up just 9 goals to the Knighthawks.

So yeah, as good as the Edmonton defense was early in the season, it was even better later and into the postseason. If not for 1 bad quarter — 6 Rochester goals in the third quarter of the Champion’s Cup — we’d be calling the Rush the NLL’s defending champs.

Special teams

If it’s hard to gauge the effectiveness of the Edmonton power play unit and penalty killers, it’s because we really didn’t see them all that often. The Rush had just 77 power play chances in their 16 regular season games, fewest in the league.

That might explain their success rate of just 32.5%, which also was worst in the league, by a far margin. But when you get as few chances as the Rush did, it’s tough to build any sort of cohesiveness and flow. Still, you’d like to think the Rush would have welcome more from this unit especially in light of the early offensive struggles in even sets.

The downers, meanwhile, had a league-low 72 chances, which reflects well on team discipline, and their rate came in at 50%, which ranks fifth-best in the 9-team league. That’s no surprise given the type of lanky defender the Rush employ. Whether 5-on-5 or man-down, the Edmonton defense covers lots of ground in a hurry on slides and shooting lanes are rarely without obstacles.

Personnel

Defensively, the argument could be made that the Rush had a championship defense from the very beginning. Keenan skipped building through the draft, shipping away a lot of draft picks as trade bait to build the team he wanted with established veterans. And for the most part, it worked, thanks also to a No. 2 overall pick in the Boston Blazers dispersal draft.

Tough decisions were made to pull off these trades, none tougher than the one that sent Brodie Merrill to Philadelphia. But adding Rubisch in the dispersal, along with trades for Corbeil, Bold and MacDonald, gave the Rush a formidable defense that was deepened with the signings of young and hungry defenders who were ready to roll should anyone dare dog a shift. Offensively, the Iannucci trade didn’t work out as planned, but Williams and Wilson are 2 of the classiest and talented vets you’ll find in the game and their help was profound down the stretch. How much did these new guys buy into the team concept in Edmonton? Wilson took a 5-minute fighting major in 1 game. And don’t discount the addition of Tom Johnson, who had played the previous 2 seasons with Washington. He’s one of the more underrated workers in the game today and his effect was not minor.

Keenan was busy as GM and coach, but he knew what he wanted for the system he runs, and he got it. It took a while to unfold and mesh, but the game is played to win championships and the Rush fell 1 game short of that.

Chavez is an avid lacrosse player in Rochester and a journalist for the Democrat and Chronicle as well as a longtime Inside Lacrosse contributor. Email him at bob.chavez@nllinsider.com or go to RochesterSports.com.

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