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East meets West: Bandits & undefeated Rush go head-to-head

03/17/2014, 9:30am EDT
By Rush beat writer Scott Zerr for NLL.com

Buffalo heads to Edmonton to start road trip as Rush seek 11th-straight win

The Buffalo Bandits (8-2) visit the undefeated Edmonton Rush (10-0) at Rexall Place on Friday at 9:30pm ET. (Photo: Bill Wippert)

As a key component of their undefeated start to the season, the Edmonton Rush (10-0) boast the National Lacrosse League’s stingiest defense. They'll face one of the NLL's hottest offenses when the Buffalo Bandits (8-2) visit Rexall Place on Friday at 9:30 p.m. ET. Watch the game live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.

The Rush enter Game #11 of the season against the Bandits having assembled a perfect start during which they’ve allowed an average of just eight goals per game. There’s was never much of a mystery going into the season – everyone knew the Rush would put a premium on rock-solid defensive play. But the combination of goalie Aaron Bold’s play between the pipes and the Rush defenders acting like concrete walls has meant the twine in Edmonton’s net hasn’t been stretched very much.

Edmonton’s defense will get maybe its stiffest test of the year this weekend on Crystal Glass Field. After the unbeaten Rush, the Bandits the next hottest team in the league and have a pack mentality offense that still features NLL scoring legend John Tavares.

“The last four or five games, they’ve had the best offense in the league so we’re going to have to be at our best to compete with them,” said Rush GM/head coach Derek Keenan. “They’ve been getting a lot of contributions in transition and they’ve had very balanced scoring so it’s going to be a tough test for us.”

The Rush are certainly doing a lot right as their unblemished record would indicate. They’re also the first team to clinch a spot in this year’s Champion’s Cup playoffs.

“Check one off the list but we’ve got a lot bigger goals moving forward,” Keenan noted.

One specific area the Rush have far exceeded their opposition in so far this season is forced turnovers. If this was football, every insider would be having a field day talking about the ball-hawking backfield who are compiling an impressive list of interceptions. In lacrosse, the “interception” is the forced turnover and yet it’s a relatively quiet stat compared to its football counterpart.

The Rush as a whole are front runners in this category. So far this season they’ve racked up 132 forced turnovers for the third-highest total in the league. But a closer look will indicate that the two teams higher than Edmonton – Colorado with 150 and Vancouver with 140 – have played more games than the Rush. The Mammoth have played 13 games already while the Stealth have played in 11.

“It comes a lot from the defensive scheme and unit we have,” said Edmonton’s Kyle Rubisch, who is the two-time defending NLL Defensive Player of the Year.

“Our pressure defense allows us to get more out on the offensive players and play more aggressive. And we’re playing as a unit and being in the right spot. You know you’ve got back up with you and that makes it easier to try and take the ball away.”

Rubisch certainly knows a thing or two about stealing from the enemy invaders. Just as the brother combination of Calgary’s Geoff Snider and Vancouver’s Bob Snider are the sure-things to lead the faceoff stats each season, and Philadelphia’s Brodie Merrill will be in the loose ball hunt alongside Snider, it’s Rubisch who will undoubtedly dominant the realm of the forced turnover.

Since the NLL has taken more note of the category, Rubisch has been the trendsetter. He set the league record in 2012 with 43 only to topple it himself last season with 44. Rubisch leads the NLL with 23 takeaways so far in 2014, and the Rush are the only team in the league with three players in the top 10 – Jeff Cornwall (sixth - 17), Jeremy Thompson (eighth - 16), and Brett Mydske (10th - 15).

Edmonton has racked up more forced turnovers than its opposition in all but one game this season, and since the sixth game of the year, the opponents have only been close one time in this category.

*Game 6 – FTs – Edmonton 16, Philadelphia 8
*Game 7 – FTs – Edmonton 14, Minnesota 12
*Game 8 – FTs – Edmonton 16, Toronto 5
*Game 9 – FTs – Edmonton 21, Vancouver 14
*Game 10 – FTs – Edmonton 18, Calgary 9

Despite the stellar numbers in this category, the Rush aren’t preaching about it in the locker room. Far from it, actually. They don’t even come close to forcing the forced turnover issue.

“We don’t emphasize it all. It’s just a result of the personnel we have and the system we play,” said Keenan. “It’s part of our system.

“We have the right guys playing our system. The guys are familiar with each other and confident about themselves, and in each other, and in the system.”

For Buffalo, their big road weekend starts out in Edmonton before ending in Minnesota against the Swarm for a Sunday matinee game. The Bandits can clinch a playoff spot with a win against the Swarm, which would also punch Rochester's ticket.

The Bandits will first have to go through the unbeaten Rush, which poses their biggest test of the season so far.

"Obviously, they're killing it right now," said Bandits assistant coach Rich Kilgour. "They're setting all kinds of records. We know we have our work cut out for us. We had a good practice Tuesday night...hopefully we take care of some business."

Tied with the Rochester Knighthawks (9-3) in the East Division standings, Buffalo is looking for a couple big wins to stay in the race with hopes of securing the top seed and first-round bye.

"Over in the East here, I think us and Rochester are really going at it for first and second (place)," Kilgour said. "Hey, two losses brings us right back down to the pack. Right now, all we're doing is concentrating on Edmonton."

To finish strong down the stretch, Buffalo looks to start each game well to avoid falling behind early.

"To get off to a quick start is important in any game," Kilgour said. "When you're facing a team that's 10-0, it might even be a little more important. No one wants to out and get down four or five goals to start and be battling back all night."

Friday night's game is shaping up to be the league's most anticipated matchup so far this season.

"This is what we tell the guys- these are the games you like," Kilgour said. "You want to go out and test yourself...let's go see what we can do against a really, really good team."

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