Two years ago the Edmonton Rush were National Lacrosse League upstarts, a 6-10 team that wouldn’t have qualified for the playoffs under today’s format. But they upset the Calgary Roughnecks in the first round of the playoffs then crushed the Minnesota Swarm in the West Division finals, so they headed to Rochester to play the Knighthawks, who were getting on a roll of their own. After a 7-9 season, Rochester held on to edge the Philadelphia Wings by a goal then went into Toronto and downed the defending champion Rock to earn the right to host the Champions Cup final.
Edmonton dominated the first half of that game, leading 5-1 heading into the intermission, and looked to be on course to earn the team’s first ever title. That’s not how it played out, of course. Cody Jamieson and Matt Vinc led the Knighthawks to a run of excellence in the second half that gave Rochester a 9-6 win and the first of two straight Champions Cups. Now those two teams are sitting in first place in their respective divisions and on a collision course for a potential title game preview this Saturday at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena.
Just don’t try to convince either team about that Champions Cup preview angle. Rush Head Coach Derek Keenan says his team has had a favourable schedule so far but are running into a tough stretch. “We’ve basically played one game each weekend, and now we’ve got two back to backs over the course of three weekends. Payback time,” he says with a laugh. So he and the Rush aren’t thinking about the playoffs, they’re just focused on playing two solid games this weekend against Rochester and then Toronto on Sunday.
On the other side, veteran defender Scott Self says the Knighthawks are also focused on the here and now. “We’re pretty good at going week by week. We don’t look past anybody. We know we’ve still got a lot of work to do. We’ll be pretty amped up, though, knowing we’re playing a team that hasn’t lost yet. We’d love to be the team to burst their bubble,” Self says.
So what kind of game should we expect this weekend, after the 8-7 overtime defensive nailbiter the Rush won over the Knighthawks on February 1 in Edmonton? “More of the same,” says Self. “We’ve got to make sure that we limit their transition; their transition right now is rolling pretty good, just with the way their defence plays that aggressive style and causes a lot of turnovers, they look to push the ball. Our offence is pretty good at that, though, controlling the ball and getting off the floor. So you have that 10-9 type of a game.”
The Rush transition game was certainly on fire two weeks ago when the Rush demolished Calgary, chipping in at least 8 goals. As Keenan points out, though, last week against Buffalo they had only one transition goal and did most of their damage five on five or on the power play. “I think we’ve shown that we can win in different ways,” Keenan says. “I think we’re capable of grinding it out. That’s one thing I think we’re better at than we may have been in the past, with some of our personnel we have and just getting better as a five on five offensive group. And certainly I think we can hold our own in the defensive end.”
So Keenan sees it shaping up as a low-scoring defensive battle between two teams that are patient and disciplined. Although, as he says, you never know in the NLL. “We could have an 18-17 shootout track meet, who knows. Both teams are capable of that, too, but I doubt it.”
While neither Keenan nor Self will talk about the Champions Cup at this point, both acknowledge that their teams are playing very well and this will be a big challenge. “I think this is our biggest mountain to climb so far this season, without a doubt,” Keenan says. “They’re a really good team. I’ve got a ton of respect for them. They don’t give up a lot because they’re patient, they’re disciplined, they possess the ball really well, they get off the floor and they score goals late in clocks, so we have to be aware of that as well.”
Self sees the allure of the matchup for fans of the game. “There’s no secret that they’re the best team coming out of the West and I think right now we’re playing probably the best lacrosse of anybody in the East, but a lot can change between now and May. We’re not too worried about the Champions Cup at this point; we’re just worried about stringing some wins together and getting hot going into the playoffs.”
So, Champions Cup preview or not, the tilt this weekend is clearly a marquee matchup and one that is keenly anticipated. There’s a ton of mutual respect between the Edmonton Rush and the Rochester Knighthawks, but come Saturday at 7:30 pm ET, that goes out the window and both teams start the grind for a win. Don’t you dare miss it.Stamp is a TV sports announcer and lacrosse lover whose skill set made him a defender but who always dreamed of being a goal-scorer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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