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Stealth have visiting Rush on radar for West Division Semifinal

04/21/2013, 2:15pm EDT
By NLL.com's Rush beat writer Scott Zerr and Stealth beat writer Ben Tole

Washington, Edmonton represented the West in last three title games

The second-seeded Washington Stealth host the third-seeded Edmonton Rush for their first-round West Division Semifinal playoff game at Comcast Arena on Saturday at 7:30pm ET, live on CBS Sports Network. (Photo: Richard Olson)

After clinching the second seed with a win in their 2013 NLL regular season finale, the Washington Stealth (9-7) host the third-seeded Edmonton Rush (9-7) for the West Division Semifinal first-round playoff game at Comcast Arena on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET. Watch the game live on CBS Sports Network.

“You want to be riding a bit of a high going into the playoffs,” said Stealth head coach Chris Hall. “We had a disappointing performance a couple weeks back against Buffalo when we had a chance to seal the deal in playoff seeding and played poorly. So it was great for us to rebound and have a great game this past Saturday against Philly.”

This marks the third time in the past four years that the Stealth have qualified for the playoffs, as they made it to the title game in both of their last two trips to the postseason before missing out last year.

Saturday’s matchup will be the first home playoff game that Washington has played since May 15, 2010 when they defeated the Toronto Rock in front of a sold-out crowd for their first ever Champion’s Cup win.

The Stealth have a 7-4 record in postseason play, dating back to the franchise’s first trip to the NLL postseason in 2002. Washington looks to carry over a sizzling offensive performance into the playoffs after they tallied a season-high 17 goals against the Philadelphia Wings in Week #16.

The team was once again led by forward Rhys Duch, who recorded a game-high nine points (4+5). Duch scored four goals to lead the NLL in goal scoring for the first time in his five-year career, finishing the season with 45 goals in 2013. Duch also finished third in the league with 96 points (45+49).

“It’s a team sport, I owe a tremendous amount of my personal success to the guys around me,” Duch said. “Everyone is moving the ball well, we are hitting our stride, working well as a team and I’ve been on the shooting end of a lot of plays so I owe a lot of credit to my teammates.”

Lewis Ratcliff continued his hot play scoring three goals on the night as the Stealth appear to have their dynamic duo of Duch and Ratcliff at full flight headed into the post season.

One of the most encouraging signs for the Stealth last weekend was the production of secondary scoring from the trio of Cliff Smith, Dean Hill and Brett Bucktooth, who all contributed on the scoresheet.

“They have played well as of late and it’s obviously a big help,” Hall said. “If you’re not getting secondary scoring, then teams can slide and double your big scorers so they can really clamp down. So to have those other three contributing and going hard to the net, creating opportunities and finishing them, then it creates more problems for the defense and opens up opportunities for the offense.”

This will be the fourth meeting between the two division rivals in 2013, with the Rush edging the Stealth 2-1 in the season series. The only meeting between these two teams in Washington occurred on January 20 where the Edmonton took it to the Stealth in an 18-10 win.

“Edmonton is a team that’s had our number not just this year but for a couple of years every team matches up well with every other team in the league,” Duch said.

The winner of Saturday’s matchup will play the winner of the Calgary Roughnecks vs. Colorado Mammoth game with an opportunity to host the West Division Finals if the Roughnecks were to lose.

“We’re healthy and in good shape but this is anyone’s to grab,” Hall said. “I think it’s just going to come down to – Are you sharp? Are you playing well? Are you getting a bounce or here there? The matchups are pretty even right down the line.”

The Rush entered the 2012 NLL playoffs through the smallest of openings, but their fourth-seed position in the West turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

The Rush ran the table in the opening rounds, hanging a shocking victory on the Calgary Roughnecks before demolishing the Minnesota Swarm to claim the West Division title. Both wins came on the road in hostile territory, but they were two of the most impressive victories in franchise history.

The Rush will need a similar stroke of fate in the 2013 playoffs as they drive towards a second consecutive appearance in the Champion’s Cup final. The Rush enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the West which puts them on the road this Saturday against the Stealth. Not only do the Rush need to be road warriors again in this year’s playoffs, but they need a jolt of something special to make another successful journey.

Last season, that jolt came from veteran forward Ryan Ward who led the entire NLL with 21 points in the playoffs, and set a Rush single-game playoff record with 11 points against Calgary in the West Semifinal. For the 2013 playoffs, Rush GM/Head Coach Derek Keenan is open to any and all who wish to step up and take on the role of prominent playoff performer.

“It would be nice to have someone step up like Ryan did, but we’ve been getting good contributions from most guys and I hope that continues and we get balanced scoring,” said Keenan.

“I don’t expect one guy to step up. Scoring by committee is more of the game that we play. It would be nice to have one guy step up and carry things offensively because you’re opportunity to win increases, but our focus is on team offense.”

Keenan might have had a little premonition at the mid-season point when he touted Jarrett Davis and Zack Greer as two players due to raise their level of play during the second half of the season. Davis has provided the Rush with timely goals and gritty play, while Greer has rebounded from a sluggish start to finish second on the team with 28 goals.

“Washington is great team. We’re looking forward to them and not thinking about anything,” said Greer. “Last year is probably a little bit in the back of our minds, but that’s in the past and we’re a different team. We have a lot of new faces this year and we’re focused on the game in hand and we can’t get away from what we’re trying to do.”

On top of Ward, Davis, Greer and top scoring threats like Corey Small and Cory Conway, the Rush also boast the NLL’s rookie sensation Mark Matthews, whose inaugural season saw him set a franchise single-season record for goals with 38, the fifth-best overall total in the league.

While Matthews’ production has slowed of late, big names often step up in big games. Two of Matthews’ most-potent offensive performances this season came against the Stealth as he notched nine points in a win at Washington, and followed that up with a six-goal effort on the Rush’s home floor at Rexall Place.

“Hopefully we can get back here and have a home playoff game, but we’re going to go on the road, we’ll go to Washington and put a hurt on them just like we did the last time,” said Matthews.

A road trip to start the NLL playoffs could have been avoided but luck was not on the Rush’s side last Saturday night in their 12-11 overtime home loss to the Roughnecks.

Moments after a Corey Small rang a shot off the crossbar, Calgary’s Shawn Evans potted the game-winner in overtime, leaving the Rush as a vagabonds come playoff time yet again. The Rush still haven’t hosted a playoff date in franchise history, but they can take the first step towards repeating as West Division champions and earn a shot at the Champion’s Cup for a second straight year when they trek to Washington to open the 2013 playoffs.

The disappointment of not opening the playoffs at home, let alone having home-field advantage throughout the post-season as the top overall seed, is being shoved aside as the Rush hit the trail and take aim at the Stealth.

“It’s going to be tough, they’ve played well down the stretch,” said Keenan of the Rush’s upcoming foe.

“They’re a handful on offense and they’re big and physical on defense. Washington presents a lot of problems for us so we’re going to have to be playing our best to win.”

But as good as the Stealth, they’re far from invincible. In fact, the Rush won two of the three meetings against them this season including an 18-10 whipping in Washington that saw Edmonton rookie sensation rack up nine points. Edmonton has won six of the last eight encounters with the Stealth, and enter the playoffs with a stellar 7-1 record in road games this season. Washington won the only playoff game between the teams, earning an overtime win in the 2010 West Division Final.

“I think we have a great chance,” said Keenan of his expectations for a second consecutive long playoff run for the Rush.

“We've played well of late, we’re 8-3 in our last 11 games, but there’s still better in us. We need to more consistent. We’ve had some little lapses and we need to clean those up. But we have a lot of potential in the playoffs.”

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