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Homecoming: Rush return to Rexall for meeting with Mammoth

04/02/2013, 3:32pm EDT
By NLL.com's Mammoth beat writer Nick Salen and Rush beat writer Scott Zerr

Edmonton closing in on home playoff game, Colorado in postseason race

The Edmonton Rush (8-5) host the Colorado Mammoth (5-8) at Rexall Place on Saturday at 9pm ET. (Photo: Jack Dempsey)

The red-hot Edmonton Rush (8-5) return home to host the resurgent Colorado Mammoth (5-8) at Rexall Place on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET. Watch the game live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.

Colorado has seen their roster articulate into a fine-tuned squad over the past month and a half. The offense has appeared bolstered alongside a defensive unit that has been tested in recent outings. Head coach Bob Hamley could not agree more as the team looks to lock down in their final three games.

"We're happy with our play as of late,” he said. “Obviously we can always improve and that's what we’re aiming to do on Saturday. We're playing against a very good Edmonton team, balanced on all fronts of the game. It's going to be a challenge, but that's what this time of the season is about."

As a whole the Mammoth will need to step up their game after last week’s near debacle against Philadelphia. After an impressive 10 goal performance in the first half, Colorado failed to score the rest of the game, simultaneously watching the Wings rally in the final seconds. Luckily, the team held on for a 10-9 win in Denver, but will be tested this week against the Rush, who are tied for first in the West Division. The Rush can clinch a home playoff game this weekend with a win against Colorado and a win by Calgary versus Washington.

The two teams met in the Mile High City back in Week #7, where Edmonton doubled up Colorado 14-7, essentially holding every statistic advantage in the meeting. This meeting could be entirely different now that the Mammoth appear to be a whole different team this time around heading into Alberta.

Casey Powell has integrated well into Colorado’s offense, posting 17 points (2+15) in three games since being traded from Rochester. In addition, Jordan McBride has quietly stepped up as a shooter behind Adam Jones and John Grant, Jr. with 41 points (21+20) this year, and played a major role in Colorado’s win last weekend with four goals in the first half.

Defensively, Tye Belanger has been the anchor of the Mammoth second half surge. In six appearances this season, Belanger has come up time and time again with crucial saves on the back end to keep his team in the game. With a .772 save percentage, the young netminder will be an X-factor this week against the high caliber Rush defense.

Edmonton has clinched a playoff berth and can clinch a home playoff game with a win over Colorado AND a Calgary win over Washington.

With the number of new faces coming into the Rush lineup for the 2013 season, Ryan Ward may have started the campaign as the somewhat forgotten man.

Ward’s performance on the floor has guaranteed that anyone who might have let him slip from their mind definitely has had their attention recaptured. A senior statesman on the Rush yet only 32 years of age, Ward is not only an on-floor leader, but also a dominant offensive presence, back to where he was during the 2010 season at the top of the Rush scoring chart.

In fact, Ward’s 64 points puts him only 11 shy of breaking his own club record for points in a single season. He’s already broken his own mark for assists in a season which currently stands at 45, the fourth-highest total in the entire National Lacrosse League this season.

It would be a reach to say this is a season of redemption for Ward, but it’s not far off to say he’s making sure that even with the youthful influx of talent over the past couple seasons, he is still a focal point-producer and go-to-guy for the Rush.

“As an offensive player, you’re supposed to put up points … that means you’re doing your job,” said Ward, who was then quick to heap praise on those around him for helping reach those higher numbers.

“I think the fact I’ve got more points this year is because of the great group of guys I get to work with and that we’re on the same page. Everyone is unselfish. Our left side is really strong and we’ve got a good thing going on the right side.

“I think it’s just more chemistry. Guys are putting the ball in the net and we’re playing at a higher level.

For the first time in franchise history, the Rush do have an array of weapons to choose from on the offensive front. Rookies Mark Matthews and Curtis Knight have provided youthful exuberance plus the unique combination of Matthews’ imposing size and powerful shot alongside Knight’s quick feet and even quicker release. Corey Small continues to develop as a scoring threat, showcasing his talents in particular during the Rush’s weekend trip to Buffalo and Toronto with production that earned him the NLL’s Offensive Player of the Week honor.

And after somewhat pedestrian starts to the season, both Zack Greer (22 goals) and Cory Conway (27 assists) have taken their games to heightened levels and extended the Rush’s scoring prowess.

Those teammates have created a strong cast with Ward at the helm. The Victoria, B.C., product, who now lives and coaches lacrosse in Minnesota, will surely hit the 20+-goal plateau for the seventh time in his NLL career, and is more than likely to go past his career-high of 52 assists set back in 2007. This season’s point-production should come as no major surprise as Ward builds off a masterful effort in last season’s march to the Champion’s Cup when he led the entire league in playoff scoring with 21 points in three games.

The stats are terrific but Ward would like to make sure that those significant numbers lead the Rush to a second straight appearance in the NLL final, and this time around, bring back the coveted Champion's Cup. Following the struggles at the start of the year, the dark hole of a 1-4 start has been erased by the current five-game winning streak and victories in seven of the last eight games.

Now comes the stretch drive of the season, and the Rush want to build off their exceptional 7-1 road record and turn around the misfortunes of a 1-4 mark at home. A sweep of the final three home games would ensure the Rush a home playoff date for the first time in team history as well as give them a franchise record 11-win campaign.

“Early on (the issues) it was more about chemistry and now we’ve got a good thing going,” said Ward.

“We understand each other and now we’re clicking. I think we’ve got it figured out and now we can win on the road and at home. It would be nice to win at home and not have to talk about the woes at Rexall.

“I’d like to score more goals and keep contributing but wins are the most important thing and I just want to keep contributing to the team’s success.”

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