April 9, 2010

Rush Completes About-Face with Playoff Berth

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

What was racing through the mind of Brodie Merrill when Edmonton’s first playoff berth symbolically cradled in his stick?

“I was just trying not to screw it up," the National Lacrosse League’s premier transition player admitted.

Indeed, Merrill buried the ball, and with it, years of frustration by Rush fans.

The long-suffering Edmonton faithful are rejoicing over the first NLL playoff berth in the Rush’s five-year history. It was clinched in nail-biting, dramatic style last weekend: two victories, each in overtime.

Last Friday, in a contest with Washington that was tight throughout, Dane Stevens’ pass set up  Ryan Powell’s goal to force overtime, and Powell scored the game-winner off a feed from Gavin Prout six minutes and seven seconds into the extra session. Matt Disher started in net and was replaced after the ninth goal by Brandon Atherton, who stopped 32 of the 36 shots he faced.

Following a flight Saturday morning to St. Paul, Minnesota, the Rush came out flat on Saturday night and fell behind the Swarm, 6-4 after the first period and 11-6 by the end of the third period. Showing an unprecedented resilience, the Rush chipped away at the lead in a wild fourth period.

“It was kind of a strange game," Merrill said.  “We felt that if we got some stops at the defensive end, we would eventually draw closer, and that’s what happened. We stayed persistent, we were able to execute well, especially on the power play and with the extra attacker."

With Atherton again imitating a wall in a relief role, coach Derek Keenan’s offense picked up the slack as well, scoring once on the power play in the final quarter and twice with the extra attacker.

“You sense confidence building when the score gets closer," Merrill said. “When we got within one goal, we knew we had a chance."

The sequence for the game-tying goal began with Ian Crashley intercepting a pass that probably would have led to a goal. Changing directions quickly, Crashley passed to Merrill, who burst ahead and fed Ryan Ward, who found Prout.

“I think because it was so unsettled, they had a tough time picking up our guys, and Gavin was able to find a seam and do what he usually does and finish inside," Merrill said.  “Obviously, it was a huge goal and we felt pretty confident after that."

Yet the overtime was lengthy again, a rarity in NLL games.

“Most of the overtime games I’ve been involved in have ended quickly," Merrill said. “But for both sides, the defenses tightened up a little bit and we battled back and forth a bit."

Just past the 5:30 mark into OT, the Swarm tried to hoodwink the Rush and pulled their goalie, Nick Patterson, for an extra attacker.

“Our bench identified it really early and I was able to drop into a hole in the shooting lane," Merrill said. “I got a good bounce scooping up the ball and I headed for the open net and did my best not to miss, and luckily it went in. I was just tying not to screw it up."

That victory put the Rush in the Western Division lead, tied with Washington at 9-4.

“Obviously, it was a good weekend," Merrill said. “A bounce here, a good play there, makes a big difference in such a tight league. We were fortunate to be on the positive side of those bounces over the weekend. Our confidence is building right now. We’re in a good spot."

Merrill, the NLL Transition Player of the Week, tallied five goals with five assists and picked up 16 loose balls on Friday and 15 on Saturday to increase his season total to 161, the most in Rush history.

After the disappointment of having to leave Portland due to the folding of the LumberJax, Merrill is part of an amazing climb from last season’s cellar-dwelling 5-11 record.

Merrill, Powell, Disher and Pat Jones are among the former members of the LumberJax, not to mention Keenan. They combined with Prout, formerly of the Colorado Mammoth, and Ward, an ex-Swarm star, along with a host of Rush holdovers, including Atherton, Andy Secore, and Jimmy Quinlan, to effect a sea change.

“We’ve been able to come together quickly and build chemistry," Merrill said. “And we get along well off the floor. We’re happy with where we are, but there’s still a sense in the locker room that there is much to accomplish. We have to take it one game at a time and so all we’re thinking about right now is the Colorado game on Friday night."

Merrill, who teaches at a school in Toronto during the week, has enjoyed the reaction of the Edmonton fans to new-found success.

“I think you look at Edmonton and despite the record of the past, the city has been pretty loyal to this team," he said. “But you can really sense they are embracing this team again, especially considering other teams in the market. They are hungry for a winner. You can sense momentum building. The city really appreciates us."

Playoff Race: Four Can Clinch

Four teams have an opportunity to clinch playoff berths this weekend. The Calgary Roughnecks, and Minnesota Swarm can lock up the two remaining berths in the Western Division, while the Orlando Titans and Toronto Rock each have an opportunity to clinch berths in the Eastern Divison, where all four playoff berths remain up for grabs.

The Edmonton Rush and Washington Stealth, both 9-4 and already in the playoffs, each have an opportunity this weekend to secure home field for the opening round (Divisonal Semifinal) playoff games.

Western Division

WASHINGTON STEALTH: (9-4) Have clinched a playoff berth. Can clinch at least second place in the division (first-round playoff home game) with a win AND a Calgary loss this weekend.

EDMONTON RUSH: (9-4) Have clinched a playoff berth. Can clinch at least second place in the division (first-round playoff home game) with a win AND a Calgary loss this weekend.

CALGARY ROUGHNECKS (7-6): Can clinch a playoff berth with a win OR a Colorado loss at Edmonton.

MINNESOTA SWARM: (5-7) Can clinch a playoff berth with a win and one Colorado loss OR with two Colorado losses this weekend.

Eastern Division

ORLANDO TITANS (8-4): Can clinch a playoff berth with a win OR with two Rochester losses this weekend OR with a Buffalo loss and a Boston loss this weekend.  Can clinch at least a second place finish (opening round playoff home game) with a win AND at least one Rochester loss AND a Buffalo loss AND a Boston loss this weekend.

TORONTO ROCK (8-6): Can clinch a playoff berth with a win OR two Rochester losses this weekend.  Can clinch at least a second place finish (opening round playoff home game) with a win AND at least one Rochester loss this weekend.

Eight teams will advance to the playoffs, the first through fourth place teams in the Eastern and Western Divisions at the end of the regular season. The NLL Playoffs remain in single-game elimination format. All games are hosted by the higher-seeded team. Key dates are as follows:

April 25: End of Regular Season

April 30 - May 2: Playoffs begin, Divisional Semifinal Games (four games)

May 7 - May 9: Divisional Finals (two games)

May 14 - 16: 2010 NLL Championship Game (one game)

NLL News & Notes

Lewis Ratcliff scored four goals in the loss to the Rush to take the NLL scoring lead with 36 goals. Toronto rookie Stephen Leblanc is ranked second with 31 goals in 14 games, one fewer than Ratcliff... Leblanc is the rare rookie to earn an NLL Overall Player of the Week Award. Helping the Toronto Rock stop a five-game losing streak, Leblanc piled up the points, scoring nine goals with eight assists... Atherton earned Defensive Player of the Week honors for his relief role in goal in both games for the Rush. Atherton made a whopping 66 saves on 74 shots… Orlando’s Casey Powell ranks third with 30 goals, but has played only 10 games and remains the favorite for the goal-scoring crown... Former NLL goal-scoring leader Tracey Kelusky, Calgary’s captain, remains doubtful for Saturday’s game against Colorado. Kelusky has not played since taking a hit from Orlando’s Rory Smith on March 20... Along with the Rush, the Stealth is the only other NLL team to clinch a playoff berth.

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