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Pursuit of perfection: Unbeaten Rush take on visiting Mammoth

04/02/2014, 12:15pm EDT
By Rush beat writer Scott Zerr & Mammoth beat writer Nick Salen for NLL.com

Edmonton seeks 14th-straight win with Colorado in town on Saturday night

Colorado Mammoth (5-9) visit undefeated Edmonton Rush (13-0) at Rexall Place on Saturday at 10pm ET. (Photo: Jack Dempsey)

The undefeated Edmonton Rush (13-0) face their next test in their perfect season when they host the Colorado Mammoth (5-9) at Rexall Place on Saturday at 10 p.m. ET. Watch the game live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.

Derek Keenan has used two words all season long to bolster his demands as general manager and head coach of the Rush.

He has pushed the usage of 'group' and 'test' in almost every interview, including his latest which set up Saturday night's tilt on Crystal Glass Field. The Rush will be out to extend their record-setting 13-0 start to the campaign with a victory also clinching first overall and home-turf advantage throughout the Champion's Cup playoffs.

On the 'group' front, Keenan's word has sunk in on both sides of the ball. To illustrate its effectiveness, the Rush are second in the NLL averaging 12.46 goals scored per game, and tops in goals allowed per game at just 8.15.

"Look at our scoring, it's balance and everyone contributes," said Keenan. "We don't have one guy that needs to be the guy. They like to share the ball and create space for each other."

The Rush have just one player amongst the league's top-10 scorers, and that is defending NLL Rookie of the Year Mark Matthews, whose 60 points sits him 10th. The Rush's top-three goal-scorers are within one of each other - Curtis Knight at 24 with Matthews and Zack Greer both at 23. A total of five Rush players have over 40 points.

"Our defensive group is very tight and communicates extremely well," added Keenan. "They trust one another and they trust in the system."

The Rush went into the season with four of the league's best defenders. Kyle Rubisch is the two-time defending NLL Defender of the Year and is probably close to locking up a third straight trophy thanks in large part to a whopping 38 forced turnovers. He's joined by captain Chris Corbeil, who leads all NLL defenders in goals and is first in the league with five shorthanded markers, and Brett Mydske and Ryan Dilks who are both in the top 10 for forced turnovers.

And that foursome has been bolstered by rugged Nik Bilic, who's also chipped in 15 points, transition Jeremy Thompson, who is top five in the league in both faceoff wins and loose balls, and the big man at the back - goaltender Aaron Bold who sports a miniscule 8.31 goals-against average.

Keenan's second word of the season 'test' has come up every week especially as the record-setting 13-game winning streak - plus 13 straight road wins dating back to last season - has received more and more attention. The Rush have been tested but they've passed each exam. They've battled from behind to win, they've battled on the road, they've battled tough opponents, and they've battled the ever-worrisome complacency that can set in when you are running away from the pack in the regular-season divisional race.

The Rush bench boss was also able to pinpoint two players who have probably graded out a little better than initially expected when the team sets its season-long goals.

"I think Cory Conway has taken his game to another level. And I would put Jeff Cornwall in that category as well," said Keenan.

Conway, who the Rush stole from the Calgary Roughnecks two seasons ago for a third-round draft pick, has tied his career-high with 34 assists and is just eight points off his career-high of 57. Cornwall, likely the fastest player on the Rush, was another great trade pickup, coming over from Buffalo for two picks in 2012. Cornwall is ranked fourth in the league with 20 forced turnovers and tied for fifth amongst league defenders with five goals.

And while the Rush are currently focused on the goals of 2014, there's plenty of optimism for the future, too.

"The one key is there's a lot of upside yet with this group," noted Keenan. "They're still so young and still learning and trying to get better."

Saturday's game will be the first meeting between Colorado and Edmonton since a change behind the Mammoth bench has installed former Rush players Chris Gill and Dan Stroup as co-coaches, along with Pat Coyle. The Rush are 2-0 against the Mammoth this season, spoiling Colorado's home-opener by a 13-10 count and then following it up with a 17-6 pummeling a week later in Edmonton's home-opener.

The game is the first in a home-and-home series on consecutive weekends between the two clubs and arguably the most crucial for both sides. The Mammoth, vying for a playoff spot, currently hold a half game lead over Vancouver for the third and final spot in the West Division. They hope to extend that gap by handing the Rush their first loss of the year.

Meanwhile, Edmonton can clinch the West with a win or Calgary loss this weekend, and can secure the top overall seed with a win or losses by the Roughnecks and Knighthawks.

Mammoth goaltender Dillon Ward reflected on last week’s 14-12 loss to Philadelphia while also setting the tone for the team in the homestretch of 2014.

“If you want to be the best you have to beat the best,” Ward commented. “Obviously it was a difficult loss last week, we want to turn things round this weekend and play a tough game against Edmonton.”

Colorado coach Dan Stroup was also critical about the team given the circumstances. He added the team is looking for the underdog road win, and can do so by playing like they did against the Wings.

“It was a good game, but obviously you’re never happy with that outcome,” he said. “We need to score when the game is on the line and learn to win. We have a short season, we got to win some games.”

This will be the third of four meetings between the two teams; compared to their last matchup in January, where they only tallied six scores, Colorado will need to step up on offense against Aaron Bold, who leads the league in goals-against with 8.31.

Adam Jones contributed five points (2+3) in his return last week, the same amount he registered in his squad’s last meeting with Edmonton. Athan Iannucci, who led the team in goals last outing with four tallies, will also be a key player on offense Saturday night.

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