May 6, 2010

NLL: Worst to First? Rush Peaks in Playoffs

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Is the Edmonton Rush destined to win the National Lacrosse League’s Champion’s Cup?

NLL Player of the Month Brodie Merrill deflects the question as deftly as he picks up a loose ball in the open floor. Merrill insists on the one-game-at-a-time approach, meaning the Rush’s sole focus is on Saturday’s West Division final against the Washington Stealth.

The championship chatter is nothing short of amazing, given the track record of the five-year-old franchise. A year ago, the Rush owned the worst record in the league at 5-11. Prior to this season, the Rush had never claimed a playoff berth.

Yet under new coach Derek Keenan -- one of several converts of the now-defunct Portland LumberJax -- Edmonton went on the road and knocked the defending NLL champion Calgary Roughnecks out of the playoff picture with an 11-7 victory highlighted by the 60-save performance of goaltender Matt Disher.

“They competed on every play," said Edmonton forward Gavin Prout. “We never felt we had the game in the bag until the final minute or two of the game. They threw a ton of shots at Matt and if he didn't play so well, along with our defense, the score could have been the other way around."

A meld of holdovers and newcomers, the Rush have developed collective poise and smarts.

“The key to our victory was to stay even-keel," Prout said. “We had a game plan that every player knew and needed to execute in order to be successful, and we did just that. As mentioned before, if Disher and our defense didn't play so well we could have easily lost. Our offense scored timely goals that stopped Calgary's momentum a couple of times throughout the game and our lefties played a very solid game; everyone contributed on the offense."

Dean Hill, formerly of the Knighthawks and the Swarm, led the Rush with three goals and one assist. Prout, formerly of the Mammoth, Andy Secore, an ex-Arizona and Minnesota player, and rookie Corey Small each scored two goals with former Swam star Ryan Ward, racking up eight assists and one goal.

Merrill, a transition player extraordinaire who picked up 190 loose balls in the regular season, scooped nine and made an assist.

While the Rush has gained momentum since turning the corner with a pair of overtime victories against Washington and Minnesota following a 3-3 start, Prout believes that it must be rebuilt each game.  

“Along with confidence comes momentum, but I don't believe you can carry momentum. You have to build momentum up at the beginning of each game and carry it throughout the game," he said.  “We are a very confident group of players, but not over-confident. The past has proven that we can beat Washington, but we also know they are very dangerous and have beaten us this year as well.  We definitely cannot take them lightly.

“We have to play a full 60 minutes of concentrated defense. A lot of help defense, because they are very skilled offensively. We're not trying to do too much besides contain them and force them to take outside shots to give our goaltender the best chance at seeing the ball.  We also have to stay out of the penalty box."

Washington is coming off a 14-10 victory over Minnesota in which Rhys Duch scored six goals and had five assists. Jeff Zywicki scored five goals.

“They’re a really tough team to prepare for," Merrill said. “They have so many offensive weapons. Everyone is a threat so it is difficult to key in on one or two guys. They do a good job spreading the ball around. Different guys step up in different situations. It can be Lewis Ratcliff, Jeff Zywicki, Rhys Duch, Luke Wiles … It is a huge challenge."

The challenge is exacerbated by playing on the road -- in this case, Seattle’s Key Arena instead of the Stealth's Comcast Arena in Everett, Wash.

But the Rush take comfort in knowing it has already won in one of the NLL’s toughest venues, Calgary’s Pengrowth Saddledome. A band of Edmonton fans made the trip in another sign of the transformative season.

“You got a sense as the season went on that the city embraced us," Merrill said. “It was great timing because the Oilers (NHL franchise) had a down year, so people were open to other things. Although this franchise has not had a lot of success, the fans have always been very loyal so it is great to be able to give back."

The Rush is also emboldened by its recent success against the Stealth, a 14-13 win on April 2 and a 14-13 victory in Washington on April 17.

East Division Finals: Orlando vs. Toronto

Although many NLL players welcomed the addition of the Orlando franchise if only to bring their families to Disney World in concert with the regular season contest against the Titans, they also found Amway Arena a difficult place to play. The Titans went 5-3 in their first season in the Sunshine State and won their playoff game last weekend against Boston by rallying from a 4-2 first quarter deficit and a 7-4 halftime deficit.

Casey Powell was spectacular, scoring five goals, including a diving shot from behind the net and a behind-the-back shot from 40 feet away.

Goaltender Matt Vinc also shone for the home team with 35 saves.

In Toronto, the Titans face a team quarterbacked by one of the best passers in the game’s history, Colin Doyle, and a pair of high-scoring rookies: Stephen Leblanc, who scored five goals with three assists in his postseason debut triumph over Buffalo, and Garrett Billings, had five assists and one goal.

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