The Minnesota Swarm reached the West Divisional Finals for the first time after beating the Colorado Mammoth on Saturday night. (Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey)
You wanted playoff excitement? The National Lacrosse League delivered it in the Divisional Semifinals.
The final game of the opening round featured a huge upset as the Edmonton Rush went into Calgary and stunned the top-seeded Roughnecks 19-11 on Saturday night.
That came hours after the Swarm walked out of Denver’s Pepsi Center with the first playoff win in franchise history, 14-10 over the Colorado Mammoth and John Grant Jr. and Adam Jones – the newly anointed Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year.
That means the winner of this Saturday’s West Division Final between the Rush and the Swarm at the Xcel Energy Center – to be aired live on CBS Sports Network at 9:30 p.m. ET - will play for the Champion’s Cup for the first time.
Two years ago, Edmonton ended Calgary’s hopes of back-to-back championships by beating its provincial rivals 11-7 at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Since then, the Rush had dropped all eight regular-season meetings by an average of 3.5 goals per game.
But this is the postseason. And on Saturday night, it was déjà vu all over again for Edmonton – same site, same end result.
“It’s slaying the dragon,” Rush head coach and general manager Derek Keenan told Evan Daum of the Edmonton Journal. “They’ve had our number for two years. … For some reason, coming in here, though. I just felt that we had a whole lot better in us.”
Edmonton’s 167 goals in the regular season were a league low, but you wouldn’t know its offense was that anemic after setting a single-game franchise record for goals. Ryan Ward and Corey Small had five goals apiece and Tom Johnson added three
After a stunning upset following a 6-10 record in the regular season, Keenan told Daum that there’s still plenty of work to be done moving forward.
“We have an opportunity ahead of us now and if you talked to me seven, eight weeks ago, things were a bit grim with our team,” Keenan said. “Great opportunity next week, very bright future, but we take care of business next week and we’ve got a chance to win a championship.”
To do that, the Rush will have to get past a red-hot Minnesota team. After winning four in a row to close the regular season, the Swarm came into Saturday’s game having never gotten past the first round.
That is until the final buzzer sounded.
“Ecstatic about getting the monkey off our backs as far as playoffs go,” said Swarm associate general manager and head coach Joe Sullivan. “[The guys] played with a lot of resiliency and a lot of focus and we got the win so we couldn’t be happier.”
Ryan Benesch led the offensive charge with three goals and four assists while rookie Evan Kirk played like a seasoned veteran, stopping 35 of 45 shots to get a postseason win in an arena that’s not called “The Loudhouse” for nothing.
By the way, Edmonton and Minnesota split its two meetings this season with each winning at home by a one-goal margin.
As for the Roughnecks and Mammoth – a combined 23-9 in the regular-season – it’s wait ‘til 2013.
Calgary coach Dave Pym gave credit to Rush for being the better team for one night, anyway.
“I still think we’re the better team. If we’re in a series, then we get a different result in the series,” Pym said.
The stunning shock of elimination was also felt in the Mile High City after the Mammoth jumped out to a 6-0 start en route to winning 11 games - two more than they had in the previous two years combined.
“We’re really disappointed,” Colorado head coach Bob Hamley said. “It’s been such a great year, we just got to sit down and evaluate where we are. We made a lot of strides this year, nobody gave us a chance at the beginning of the year to be where we are today, but it doesn’t make us feel any better.”
The East Divisional Finals provided no less drama.
At the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night, the Toronto Rock were held scoreless for the first 21:37. They turned the tables over the final 33:03, keeping the Buffalo Bandits off the scoreboard and rallying for a 7-6 win.
With the score tied 6-all, Brendan Thenhaus – cut by Buffalo earlier this year – notched the game-winner on an underhanded shovel shot with 1:35 to play. Buffalo appeared to tie the score with one second to play on a power-play goal from John Tavares after the Rock’s Bill Greer was whistled for a penalty with seven ticks left on the clock.
No goal – Tracey Kelusky was called for a crease violation.
“You want to talk about roller coaster of emotions.” Greer told Neil Stevens of the Canadian Press. “First off, I don’t know how I got the penalty. There was nobody near me. (The referee) pointed at me. I felt as if I was going to lose my mind.
“In the box, (the Bandits) tried some fancy play. I thought, ‘There’s no way that is going to work.’ And then (Tavares) scores. I was so mad. Then the guys on our bench are going, ‘No goal, no goal!’ It was a whirlwind of emotions.”
On the Bandits’ side, it was a bitter end to a disappointing year that included a franchise-record six-game losing streak and had Buffalo needing to scramble to lock down the last playoff spot in the final week of the season.
"It was an odd finish," Tavares told Budd Bailey of the Buffalo News. "It was indicative of how we played in the regular season."
No team has been a repeat NLL champion since Toronto in 2002 and 2003. To have a chance at ending that drought, the Rock must beat the Rochester Knighthawks at 7 p.m. Saturday night in the East Final, a game that will also be shown live on CBS Sports Network.
On Friday night, the Knighthawks survived a late flurry and held off the Philadelphia Wings 14-13. Rochester led 14-9 before giving up four unanswered tallies over the last 2:32 to make it a one-goal game.
“They made a late push at the end. Good for them, but we held on. Now we’re in Week 2 (of the playoffs),” said Knighthawks’ captain Pat McCready told Travis Larner of NLL.com.
Cody Jamieson and Rochester native Joe Walters each had two goals and four assists for the Knighthawks.
Rochester dropped all three games against Toronto this season, allowing 29 goals in two losses at the Air Canada Centre.
The loss was Philadelphia’s sixth straight.
“We played with an extreme sense of urgency that we needed to play with. That’s the way our lacrosse club has to play every game, every quarter,” head coach and general manager Johnny Mouradian told Larnera. “We out loose-balled them, we out faced-off them, held their power play 0-for-3. Once again, statistically, we can’t close the door and get the win that we need to.”
Over the next two weeks, four teams will be reduced to one champion. Stay tuned.