Derek Keenan wasn't thrilled with the way his team played, but the Edmonton Rush general manager and head coach will take a record-setting win regardless.
The Rush set a new NLL record for the best-ever start to a regular season, winning their ninth straight game with a 10-9 victory over the Vancouver Stealth (3-8) on Saturday night before a crowd of 7,898 plus the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders at Rexall Place in Edmonton.
"Our fundamentals were brutal," said Keenan. "We missed shots, missed nets, made bad passes. They outran us, and outplayed us in a lot of areas."
Keenan hinted all the talk of the unbeaten start and league record was weighing on his team, but a near-perfect fourth quarter lifted the Rush to a 9-0 mark. Cory Conway scored twice in the fourth quarter and rookie Robert Church completed his first NLL career hat trick as the Rush escaped with the win.
"We played some close games and I think we've adapted to that. It's the kind of game you find a way to win," said Church. "We knew were weren't playing our best but we were sticking with them. And we knew in the fourth quarter they wouldn't be able to keep up with our conditioning and intensity."
The Rush opened on a tear, scoring on their first two shots of the game against Vancouver goalie Tyler Richards. Jarrett Davis opened the scoring just 44 seconds into the game and Mark Matthews followed at 1:31 on a set up during transition from Jeremy Thompson. Curtis Knight made it 3-0 on a nifty effort in front of the Stealth net, stopping on a dime, spinning and whipping a shot past Richards.
Trailing 3-1 after the first quarter, the Stealth defense stood tall against the Rush and started to chip away at the lead. Newcomer Jamie Lincoln pulled Vancouver within one on a terrific diving effort, and then after a shorthanded marker by Rush captain Chris Corbeil, Richards got his game together with three sensational stops during an Edmonton power play. Tyler Garrison's unassisted goal brought Vancouver within one again, and Tyler Digby knotted the game 4-4 just 1:45 before halftime.
The teams exchanged goals throughout the third quarter including Vancouver's first lead coming on a goal by Mike Grimes to put the Stealth up 7-6. Church brought the Rush even finishing off a perfect touch pass from Davis, but Rhys Duch put the Stealth up 8-7 heading into the fourth quarter as his diving shot beat Aaron Bold with 2:09 left in the third.
Vancouver appeared to get the lead back as a rocket by Duch beat Bold but upon review on a challenge from the Edmonton, the ball went off both goalposts and was waved off. The Rush breathed a sign of relief and responded with two goals from Conway. The Rush forward narrowly beat an expiring shot clock as he rifled a shot past Richards. Conway fired in a quick-stick strike on a feed from Matthews, and less than two minutes later Church notched his hat trick marker.
Grimes scored his second of the night with one minute remaining to bring the Stealth close, but Bold made two saves in the dying seconds to prevent overtime. Bold finished with a season-high 41 saves.
The loss seemed particularly galling to Vancouver head coach Chris Hall, who surprisingly dropped Lewis Ratcliff from the lineup as a healthy scratch despite a history of big offensive outings against Edmonton.
"We played better but still not good enough," said Hall. "It's pretty disappointing when you're 3-8 and you've lost 10-9 and 9-8 to the team that's 9-0.
"You can't win in this league when your power play doesn't score. We played well for large chunks of time and then we'd make an error that would kill us."
The victory was also the eighth in the last nine meetings for the Rush against the Stealth, while Vancouver has lost seven of their last eight this season.
Nick Weiss and Brett Bucktooth also scored for the Stealth, who are back in Alberta for their next game on March 21 at Calgary. But first up for Calgary is a meeting with the Rush next Friday at the Saddledome.
Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:
1) Robert Church
2) Aaron Bold
3) Tyler Richards