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High-flying Stealth host Rush on Sunday

01/16/2013, 7:45am EST
By Ben Tole, Stealth beat writer for NLL.com

Washington's Smith, Edmonton's Knight two of the NLL's early surprises

The Washington Stealth (2-0) host the Edmonton Rush (0-1) on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET at Comcast Arena. (Photo: Richard Olson)

After an impressive offensive outing in their 17-13 win over Colorado last weekend, the Washington Stealth (2-0) return home to face the defending National Lacrosse League West Division champion Edmonton Rush (0-1) on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET at Comcast Arena. Watch the game live on the NLL on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network by clicking here.

Washington has a 2-0 record for just the third time in franchise history and has already matched half of their win total from last season when they finished with a 4-12 record.

“We made some significant changes to our roster over the summer,” said Washington Stealth head coach Chris Hall. “We knew we had a solid core of veterans but thought we needed to change the mix up a little bit. We’re very pleased to have two wins early.”

One of the biggest reasons for the Stealth’s early success is the high-flying offense, which is averaging 15 goals per game so far this season. The Stealth’s big three in Athan Iannucci, Rhys Duch and Lewis Ratcliff are playing well, but the biggest surprise so far has been the play of forward Cliff Smith. Smith has scored 15 points (7+8) in two games and was named NLL Offensive Player of the Week for the second straight week.

“Cliff is off to a fantastic start and really gives us big pieces on the left side with Lewis and on the right side in Iannucci and Duch,” Hall said. “Our supporting cast has been very good as well. Dean Hill popped in three [goals] the other night, Brett [Bucktooth] has been scoring and [Kyle] Buchanan has been playing very well as a rookie.”

Smith has not only been the standout on the Stealth team so far, but with back-to-back offensive player of the week awards, he is arguably the talk of the NLL right now.

“I’ve got to keep it in perspective – it’s only been two games – but we’re moving the ball a lot better than we were last year ,” Smith said. “It’s easier to keep things rolling then it is to turn them around, which was the case last year.”

Rookie forward Kyle Buchanan is also making his presence felt offensively with eight assists in his first two NLL games. Buchanan also registered his first career goal against the Mammoth last Saturday.

This Sunday, the Stealth will look go to 3-0 for just the second time in team history, the first being in 2010, when the team went on to win the Champion’s Cup.

A 3-0 start would also give the Stealth a little separation from teams in the West Division, all of whom currently hold an 0-1 record. With Colorado and Calgary going head-to-head, and the Stealth playing the Rush, a win would give Washington a 2.5 game lead on two of those teams.

The Stealth will have its hands full this weekend with the Rush, who look to build upon a deep playoff run and their narrow defeat last May in the Champion’s Cup loss to Rochester. Edmonton dropped their season opener with a 10-9 loss to the Toronto Rock last weekend.

“We played pretty well in spurts,” said Rush general manager and head coach Derek Keenan. “We may have ran out of gas a little bit, maybe a little bit rusty. Probably played well enough to win but sometimes that happens in this league.”

During the 2012 NLL Entry Draft, the Rush added two goal scorers in first overall pick Mark Matthews, which they received as part of the Paul Rabil trade deal with the Stealth last season, and Curtis Knight with the eighth overall selection.

The two rookies stormed onto the NLL scene last weekend, each scoring three goals in their NLL debuts. Knight won NLL Rookie Player of the Week after recording five points (3+2) in the losing effort.

“For myself, it definitely went well but it was disappointing to not get the win,” Knight said. “I was nervous at first, but after the first couple of shifts, I was able to play my game. I definitely didn’t expect to get three goals but I’m glad it happened.”

The Rush are also returning former Stealth goaltender Aaron Bold, who is coming off a career year when he posted a 10.47 GAA and earned his first trip to the NLL All-Star game last season. Bold got off to a good start by holding the Rock to 10 goals last week, but still wasn’t satisfied with his play.

“I thought the defense was very solid for the most part,” Bold said. “I had a few mental lapses that could of cost us the game. I don’t think I had the best start. I thought we got off to a good start offensively and we just have to keep that consistency through that whole 60 minutes to have that end result.”

The Stealth hold a 17-12 lead in the all-time series with the Rush but lost both decisions against Edmonton in 2012.  When these two teams met in Washington last season, the Rush dismantled the Stealth 16-5 and later defeated them 10-9 at home in March with playoff implications for both teams.

“The Stealth are a great team,” Bold said. “I had the pleasure to play with and against them. They’ve gotten better over the offseason. We’re going to have our work cut out for us, but if we stick to our gameplan, I think the end result will be good.”

Despite the solid performance from his backup goaltender Nick Patterson last weekend, Hall expects starting goaltender Tyler Richards to be back in goal for the Stealth.

“We’re still playing a 1-2 [goalie] game,” Hall said. “In the past, when we had [Matt] Roik here, we split a lot of time but we feel that [Richards] is ready to be a number one goalie. We thought it was important for Patterson to get his feet wet early in the season and we thought he did a good job. But we’ll most likely go back with Richards this weekend because he is our number one.”

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