NLL Playoffs: Rush take west title again

The Saskatchewan Rush celebrate a win. (Photo credit: Cliff McCaig)

For the fourth straight season, the Saskatchewan Rush will be representing the Western Division in the National Lacrosse League Finals. The Rush defeated the Calgary Roughnecks 15-13 on Sunday evening in an entertaining game that saw Calgary make a late charge scoring four of the last five goals.

The win pushed Saskatchewan’s season record to a perfect 11-0 against divisional opponents and again makes them the class of the west.

Mark Matthews, the NLL’s top scorer and quarterback for Saskatchewan’s offence, once again showed why he’s in contention for league MVP. His chemistry with Ben McIntosh and Robert Church was undeniable on Sunday night. Every shift they were a threat to score and when Calgary made the critical mistake of going shorthanded it became automatic: three for three on the power-play with McIntosh, Church and Matthews factoring in on every goal. The night would end with #42 leading all Rush forwards with two goals and five assists.

“It’s pretty sweet getting back to the final. It’s what we played for all year,” said Matthews in a Rush media release.

Right from the opening face off it was clear the Rush defense had a game plan to attack and stop Calgary’s potent transition game. Saskatchewan denied the long outlet pass to players like Tyson Bell and Zach Currier. From there, they forced Roughnecks’ ball carriers up the middle where they were pressured and forced to waste valuable time on the shot clock. The strategy worked perfectly as Calgary committed a number of turnovers and mustered only seven first quarter shots on Evan Kirk.

In fact, if you look at the season numbers, what Saskatchewan accomplished becomes even more impressive. Calgary’s top three transition players this year were Mitch Wilde (25 points), Zach Currier (22 points) and Tyson Bell (14 points). In the four games versus Saskatchewan, that group was held to just two points. Three of those games (including the western final), were decided by two goals or less, making Saskatchewan’s ability to stop Calgary’s transition a huge difference maker in the outcome of those games.

At the half, Saskatchewan held an 8-5 lead. Although down by three, the Roughnecks were getting some spectacular goaltending from Christian Del Bianco, who faced 36 first-half shots. Drawing on their resiliency just as they had in Colorado a week earlier, the Roughnecks came out and scored three-straight third-quarter goals tying the game 8-8. The Rush seemed un-phased by the Roughnecks run and replied with a four-goal run of their own. With seconds remaining in the third, Dane Dobbie corralled a loose ball at the side of the net and in one motion zipped a highlight reel backhand pass to Wes Berg who quick-sticked it past Evan Kirk with 0.1 second remaining. The play was reviewed but the goal stood making the score 12-9 for Saskatchewan at the end of three quarters.

The Rush opened the fourth with two quick goals from Marty Dinsdale and Matthews, seeming to put the game out of reach. However, Adrian Sorichetti took a five-minute high sticking major and Calgary took full advantage, scoring twice. As the game wound down, Calgary was forced to pull Del Bianco and Ryan Dilks promptly scored on the empty net. Again, the Roughnecks would not quit and Dickson scored followed by Wes Berg on a two-man advantage. Unfortunately for Calgary, the clock ran out and Saskatchewan hung on for the victory.

Shortly after the game, head coach Curt Malawsky said to Roughnecks TV: “We just ran out of time, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. Those guys poured their hearts on the line. They’re hurting in that room. No matter how it finishes, when you don’t win a championship it’s going to sting. It’s a tough moment right now.”

Despite the loss, Calgary got two monster performances from veterans Dane Dobbie and Curtis Dickson. Dobbie scored twice and assisted on nine goals while Dickson scored six times and added four assists. Christian Del Bianco finished the night facing 59 Saskatchewan shots and stopping 45 of them.

Matthews finished the evening as the top scorer for the Rush. Both Robert Church and Ben McIntosh finished with three goals and three helpers. Evan Kirk stopped 33 of 46 shots fired his way.

The Rush will host the Rochester Knighthawks two weeks from now, as game one of the NLL Finals will get underway in Saskatoon on Saturday May 26th.