NLL: Thunderbirds win thrilling OT game against Rush

Rhys Duch and Chris Boushy try to slip past defender Kyle Rubisch. Halifax, Nova Scotia – Dec 04, 2021: Halifax Thunderbirds and Saskatchewan Rush at the Scotiabank Center in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Trevor MacMillan/Halifax Thunderbirds)

Rhys Duch wasn’t even supposed to play, but his hat trick led the Halifax Thunderbirds to a 12-11 overtime victory against the Saskatchewan Rush in Halifax on Saturday night. The 13-year veteran said he was supposed to be scratched for the first time in his career until captain Cody Jamieson got hurt in warm-up. Duch was told 10 minutes before game time that he was playing.

“We all gotta be ready,” said Duch. “Up to ten minutes before the game, I wasn’t playing, and all of a sudden, I mean anything can happen. So, I was glad I was able to contribute. I knew if I had an opportunity I was going to make the best of it. I’m just glad I did.”

“I can’t say enough about the professionalism of Rhys Duch,” said Thunderbirds head coach, Mike Accursi. “We talked to him 10 minutes before the game to suit back up and get ready, and he went out there and scored three goals, and I thought he played outstanding.”

Accursi said they expect Jamieson will be back for Friday’s game against the Toronto Rock.

Saskatchewan took an early 3-1 lead in the first quarter. Connor McClelland, Robert Church and Ryan Keenan scored for them. Clarke Petterson scored for Halifax going glove side on a penalty shot. He had another one before the quarter ended but couldn’t score.

“Duchy (Rhys Duch) was saying he’s played 14 years in this league (this is his 13th season played over 14 years) and had one penalty shot; I had two in a game,” said Petterson.

Saskatchewan continued their strong play in the second quarter, going up 6-3 with six minutes left in the quarter.

But the Thunderbirds battled back. Jake Withers and Brad Gillies scored to make it 6-5. Scott Campbell scored the last Halifax goal before Withers, meaning defencemen/transition players scored their last three goals.

Accursi said it was important for the defence to step up because the offence was sloppy in the first half. Petterson attributed that to quickly adjusting to Jamieson’s absence.

“Losing our leader right before the game was really tough,” said Petterson. “It kind of threw a wrench in things, but we needed somebody to step up.”

Petterson tied the game four minutes into the third. Two minutes later, Kyle Jackson fed the ball to Rhys Duch, who scored his first as a Thunderbird. But Jeff Cornwall and Jeff Shattler answered for Saskatchewan. Duch tied the game at eight before the quarter ended.

These teams are title contenders, and the fourth quarter lived up to the hype. These two teams went blow for blow with each other. 

Halfway through the fourth quarter, Tyson Bell and Stephen Keogh scored for Halifax while Holden Garlent and Robert Church answered for Saskatchewan.

A minute after Church’s goal, Duch shot the ball from the right side to score the hat trick and put Halifax up 11-10 with six minutes left.

Duch had been dealing with an achilles injury after winning the 2019 championship with the Calgary Roughnecks. He was happy to be back contributing.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to play healthy,” said Duch. “There’s a bit of a silver lining for me with Covid, obviously we would rather be playing, but it gave me an opportunity to get healthy. So, it was nice to be out there and feeling good. Scoring goals is always what I want to do for my team, so it was really exciting.”

The Rush went on the power play with three minutes left. Robert Church found Jeff Shattler at the left side of the net, and he scored to send the game to overtime. Saskatchewan was deadly on the power play, scoring five out of eight times.  

In overtime, Halifax’s goalie Warren Hill made many fantastic saves to keep his team in it. None bigger than when Jeff Cornwall went on a break and Hill made the save and stopped Ryan Dilks point-blank on the rebound.

Saskatchewan then appeared to end the game as Josh Currier drove to the front of the net and scored. However, it was determined a body part touched the crease, so no goal.  

As what usually happens in sports, when one team has an excellent opportunity to end it but can’t, the other team will capitalize. Eric Fannell fired the ball from outside and found the back of the net to win it for Halifax.

This is the second overtime game in as many meetings between these two teams dating back to last season. Saskatchewan won the previous meeting 16-15 in Halifax, in a game where the Thunderbirds rallied back from a 12-3 deficit.

“What else would you expect playing against the Saskatchewan Rush?” said Petterson. “They’re a great team, and we matched blow-for-blow all night long. And the fans really helped us when our legs were getting heavy, down a couple guys, and gave us a boost of energy when we needed it.”

The Thunderbirds wore orange Every Child Matters jerseys to honour the children who suffered in the residential school system. Four sets of handprints were on the jerseys to honour four residential survivors who are family members of the team’s owner and general manager, Curt Styres and captain Cody Jamieson, both Mohawks from Six Nations. The jerseys will be auctioned off to raise money for residential school survivor programs across Nova Scotia and Canada. The team will wear an Every Child Matters patch on their jerseys and helmets throughout the season.

Halifax is back in action on Friday when they host an Eastern Conference contender in the Toronto Rock.