March 5, 2014

NLL's Rush Riding Record Streak to Start Season

by Neil Stevens | | Twitter

The NLL's Rush are riding a hot streak to start the season, setting a record with eight wins out of the gate. (Dale MacMillan)

Corey Small has been on the outside looking in as his Edmonton Rush teammates run their winning streak to record proportions. He wishes he was out there on the green carpet scoring goals, but it hasn't been possible.

Small, 26, had been an important cog in the offense since being the team's first 2009 draft pick out of the University of Albany. He scored a career-best 28 goals last year. But then, while playing summer ball for his home-city Victoria Shamrocks in Game 1 of the Western Lacrosse Association final in Langley, British Columbia, he suffered a serious injury. His 2014 NLL season was wiped out.

''It was a freak accident,'' he recalled during an interview. ''I wasn't hit or anything. It was just one of those things where you turn and pivot, and I turned the wrong way and tore the ACL in my left knee.

''I had the surgery in September and my surgeon told me a full recovery would take four to six months. I'm in my third month of rehab. It looks like I'm ahead of schedule. I've been working out and things are looking good.''

He's hoping he'll be able to rejoin his teammates for practises later this season but he understands the reality that he'll probably have to wait until 2015 to get into his next NLL game.

''It'll be best to make sure I'm 100 per cent before coming back,'' he says. ''I want to have a long career, not a short one.''

He regrets that he is missing his team's historic winter. Edmonton is 8-0, tying the record for best start to a season set by the 1993 Buffalo Bandits.

''It's been tough,'' he says. ''I felt the last couple of years that I started coming into my own. Every year in the pro league you build more confidence and last season I felt I was on the upswing in my career. The injury was unfortunate timing. I'd love to be part of it now. It's tough to watch and not be part of it but I'm really happy for the guys.''

He's watching Rush games on the Network and keeping in touch with teammates. Cory Conway also lives in Victoria and the two get together for dinner every once in a while to catch up.

''It's awesome,'' Small replies when asked what he thinks of the 8-0 run. ''The guys deserve it.''

GM-coach Derek Keenan instilled a winning attitude from the day he was hired and has assembled a strong roster.

''I don't think there is any coach in the league who prepares his team as well as Coach K does,'' says Small. ''He made a lot of off-season moves in bringing in some key players like Kyle Rubisch and Chris Corbeil and through the draft he got Mark Matthews and Curtis Knight and this year Riley Loewen and Robert Church, who are new guys who have really stepped up.

''The last couple of years we were on the brink and this year the guys came out on fire right from the start of the season. Each game they've built more confidence and momentum.''

The need for a strong defense-to-offense transition flow is something Keenan has stressed.

''That makes such a difference,'' says Small. ''It makes other teams very cautious about what they're doing against our defense because they know we can run the floor. The guys work hard in practise and in the gym. They really deserve everything they've got so far.''

Keenan was a player with the '93 Bandits, who were coached by the late great Les Bartley, so he has a distinct sense of déjà vu as he ponders the perfect _ so far _ Rush season. He doesn't talk about it much. Bartley didn't talk about it 21 years ago either.

The coaching staff and the players are finding a motive leading up to each game to push themselves to their best effort. For instance, Toronto hadn't lost in Edmonton since 2011 so erasing that blotch was the focus last Friday night, and the Rush prevailed 11-10.

They'll try to keep the good times rollin' when they play at home against Vancouver, the West's last-place team, on Saturday night. The focus for that one will be the large bone to pick with the Stealth ever since a 12-11 first-round playoff loss to them last spring.

Formidable challenges at Calgary on March 14 and at home against Buffalo on March 21 await. The Streak has come at the expense of every NLL opponent except Buffalo, which is the only team Edmonton has not played.

Captain Chris Corbeil puts things in perspective.

''No one really openly discusses the streak,'' he said in a club release. ''I think the guys realize that we don't want to get ahead of ourselves and thinking we're better than we are. We're well aware of the work it takes to win games in this league and the moment a team gets complacent they'll pay for it. I also think a number of guys don't want to address it because they're superstitious and are just afraid of jinxing it.''

It is a new experience for most of the players.

''I've never got out to a start like this at any level,'' Corbeil said. ''It's exciting to win but an undefeated season is an incredibly tough feat, especially at the professional level, and isn't the focus of our team.''

Small wishes he was in on this new experience. It is impossible right now, but he'll be back.

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