Unlike the east, the NLL’s western division playoff standings have been locked up for weeks. Saturday’s Calgary versus Saskatchewan game featured two teams looking to peak as they get ready to enter the 2018 playoffs. In a very entertaining and competitive game, it was the Rush beating the Roughnecks 11-10. With the win, the Rush sweep the season series and end with a league best 14-4 record.
Coming into the game, all-world forward Mark Matthews sat at 78 assists, just five short of the NLL single-season record of 83. It didn’t take long for him to get started as he assisted on a Ben McIntosh goal just 1:56 into the game. For the rest of the first half, the Roughnecks and the Rush exchanged blows much like a heavyweight fight. The Rush relentlessly attacked the middle of the Roughnecks defence. Christian Del Bianco was forced to come up with some spectacular saves to keep the game close. At the other end, Calgary attacked with their outside shooters and transition game. Rush goalie Evan Kirk was equal to the task as he too made some terrific saves.
Late in the second quarter, with Calgary ahead 5-4, Saskatchewan captain Chris Corbeil made a particularly intelligent play in his own zone. After Dane Dobbie missed a shot with 42 seconds left, Corbeil corralled the loose ball, but did not pick it up until the game clock had wound down to 30 seconds. The heads-up play ensured Saskatchewan would have the last shot and it payed off with Ryan Keenan scoring with one second left tying the game at 5-5.
The Rush carried that momentum into the third quarter scoring twice on nice goals by Robert Church and Ben McIntosh. Calgary replied with a goal from Holden Cattoni, but Saskatchewan answered with a three-goal run to give them a 10-6 lead early in the fourth.
With 5:58 remaining in the game, Mark Matthews spotted Dan Dawson on a swing pass. Dawson took several steps in and beat Del Bianco clean with an overhand shot. With that assist, Matthews set a new single season record with 84 surpassing the old record held by Shawn Evans, Josh Sanderson and Callum Crawford. The assist also gave Matthews a new career high in points with 116, leading his team for the fifth straight year in that category. Most importantly, the Dawson goal turned out to be the game winning goal.
“It’s pretty cool when you can set a record, but it’s all to do with the guys on the team,” said Matthews in a Rush press release. “There’s no assist if they don’t score and sometimes those guys can score at will. They make it happen and that makes my job easier.”
Calgary’s regular season ends with an 8-10 record, the same record as last year when they missed the playoffs. However, Calgary made huge improvements from the previous year, perhaps most notably in their transition game. It’s no secret that Zach Currier has been a huge part of that success. Against the Rush, Currier scooped 16 loose balls and had two of the most athletic caused turnovers you will ever see. Currier led the league with 200 loose balls and is a serious rookie of the year candidate.
Curtis Dickson led all Calgary scorers with three goals and four assists. Cattoni scored four times and added one assist. Del Bianco stopped 32 of 43 shots while adding two assists. The playoffs start next week as Calgary will visit the Loud House in Colorado to play the 11-7 Mammoth.
Saskatchewan got one goal and six assists from Matthews. Ben McIntosh scored four times and added two assists. Evan Kirk stopped 36 of 46 shots.
“The biggest thing for [Matthews] is he is such an unselfish player,” said Rush GM/head coach Derek Keenan. “He could care less about goals, assists and points. He only cares about wins and winning championships.
Saskatchewan ends the season as the class of the NLL. Matthews and Church lead the league in scoring with 116 and 107 points respectively. Corbeil and Rubisch represent the most intimidating defence in the league. With solid goaltending from Evan Kirk and a stratospheric power play efficiency, the Saskatchewan Rush are once again favorites to win it all. The Rush will host the western finals on May 10th and take on the winner of the Roughnecks/Mammoth game.