March 27, 2013

Rush Firing on All Cylinders During Hot Streak

'We're best team in the league right now,' says rookie Knight

by Neil Stevens |

Much attention has been paid to Rush rookie Mark Matthews, but Edmonton's defense can play too.
© Dale MacMillan

Jimmy Quinlan savored the post-game scene in the Edmonton Rush dressing room deep inside Toronto's Air Canada Center.

The captain was drained after one of the most rewarding weekends in the NLL team's history, which he's been a big part of since Day 1 in 2006. Some of his teammates were heading into the showers while others sat in partial uniforms letting the enormity of their two victories sink in. Music thump-thump-thumped from a speaker on the floor. Quinlan sat on a bench along a wall and looked around.

''It's a great group of guys who love playing for each other,'' he replied when asked what he thought of his team after its fifth straight victory, all on the road. ''We've got a total buy-in from everybody on the team and that makes it a lot of fun to come to the rink.''

A 17-12 win in Toronto on Sunday followed a 14-7 triumph in Buffalo the previous night, and the Rush looked unbeatable in both games.

Having gone 7-1 since a 1-4 start to improve to 8-5, the Rush now sit atop the NLL West standings.

They'll try to duplicate at home the magic they've had on the road, where they are 7-1. They are 1-4 at home.

Time to win some at home, Jimmy?

''Yeah, for some reason we love the road and struggle at home but we're working hard to figure out the right recipe,'' he said. ''We haven't been there for a while so we're a different team since we played there.''

That was on Feb. 22 when they got beat by Minnesota. Now they'll finish their schedule with April home dates on the 6th against Colorado, the 14th against Rochester and the 20th against Calgary.

GM-coach Derek Keenan has assembled a dynamic lineup that outruns most opponents.

The instant success of rookie sensation Mark Matthews, who is tied with 2012 league MVP John Grant Jr. of the Colorado Mammoth for most goals with 35, has drawn a lion's share of the attention. Matthews can score outside, inside and even, as we're starting to believe, standing on his head. Corey Small and Zack Greer are Edmonton's other major weapons and Ryan Ward, Jarrett Davis, Alex Turner, Cory Conway and rookie Curtis Knight are delivering quick cross-floor passes to set up goals.

But what really stood out Sunday was the work of the defense corps of Brett Mydske, Jarrett Toll, Kyle Rubisch, John Lintz, Jeff Cornwall, Chris Corbeil and Ryan Dilks in concert with transition players John Lafontaine, Jeremy Thompson and Quinlan. Fast breaks out of their own end resulted in seven Rush goals.

''When your back end is putting in seven, it definitely takes the load of us offensive guys,'' said Small.

When the Rock had the ball, goalie Aaron Bold could count on his aggressive D-men restricting most of the shots to the low-percentage outside variety.

''It was a pretty good game for the defense,'' said the 6-foot-4 Mydske as he stood snacking on a slice of pizza amid all the equipment bags spread around the floor. ''We let up a little bit at the end when they scored two but, overall, we had a good game plan in place and we stuck to it.''

Edmonton lost its three previous once-a-year visits to the ACC with Keenan at the helm, and the three before he took over. In going 0-6 all-time, every Rush lineup had lost by at least four goals in the ACC.

''There's this mystique about playing in Toronto but we've been on a roll — we've won five in a row now — so we had confidence coming in,'' said Small. ''Playing last night, we were pretty crisp with the sticks. That helped us out as well.''

''I think we're the best team in the league now,'' said Knight.

Keenan was a satisfied man after getting his first win in Toronto since being interim GM of the Rock during their 2003 championship run. He ran teams in Anaheim, Calif., and Portland, Ore., before being hired by the Rush but they never played in Toronto.

''It's been a long, long time,'' said Keenan. ''I said to [assistant coach] Todd Lorenz with two minutes to go, 'It's been 11 seasons.' So, there you go. Eleven seasons. It does feel good. We played extremely well. I think we earned it, for sure.

''We knew what we were in for when we came in here. It's a hard place to win. They are a very, very, very good team. They're going to be a lot better down the road and I'm sure that was their wakeup call. We had ours when we were 1-4. We've played really well since then and, hopefully, we can keep this thing going.''

The U-turn in the Rush season occurred on the Feb. 15-16 weekend when they beat the Washington Stealth 15-10 at home then flew to Denver and defeated the Mammoth 14-7.

''I can go right back to the start of the season when we lost to [Toronto] 10-9,'' Keenan said when asked how it all came together. ''We played pretty well and could have had a different result. We went into Washington the next weekend and shellacked them and thought it was easy.

''We went back home the next weekend and didn't bring that compete level. The next thing we knew we were 1-4. We had a couple of tough losses to Calgary that could have gone either way but we didn't win. Then it was, ''OK, guys, we need to figure out what compete level we need to play at.'

''The execution part got better, especially on offense. Our D has been pretty solid all year but our offense has got better every week. We had a couple of hiccups along the way. There was the loss to Minnesota at home [Feb. 22]. We just didn't play with urgency. After that, we went on the road to Minnesota [Feb. 24] and put it to them pretty good and since then we've been rolling.

''I don't think the guys want to go back in that hole where we were at 1-4. They want to stay out of that hole. There's a realization that they don't want to go back there and an understanding of what it takes to keep that from happening.''

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