The National Lacrosse League’s top two teams from the regular season will begin the first-ever all-Canadian Champion’s Cup Finals in the league’s 29-year history when the East Division champion Toronto Rock host the West champion Edmonton Rush at Air Canada Centre for Game 1 on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET. Watch the game live on TSN4, TSN5, and TSN GO (Canada) along with ESPN3, MSG, Comcast Sportsnet California Plus, NESNplus, and Altitude 2 (U.S.). Fans outside North America can click here to watch live.
The Rush won its spot in the Finals by flipping the script from last year’s West Finals against its rival Calgary Roughnecks. After winning Game 1 at home, the Rush lost Game 2 in Calgary, but were able to pull through with a 4-1 win in the 10-minute tiebreaker game.
“Those are difficult, the ten-minute sessions,” said Rush general manager and head coach Derek Keenan. “There’s really no way to prepare for them. Based on our experience from a year ago, we know how much effort is expended trying to get to that game, when you’ve lost the first game, in the two game. I think we had a little more fuel in the tank in the ten-minute extra time than Calgary did.”
The last time the Rush were in the Champion’s Cup Finals was 2012, a year in which they won their spot playing on the road. The Rush lost to the Rochester Knighthawks 9-6 despite leading 5-1 at halftime. After a record breaking 16-2 regular season last year, which included a league-record 14-0 start, Edmonton was unable to get past the West Finals.
“It’s not an easy place to get to,” said Keenan about the championship round. “I think we’ve put together four good years in a row now, but getting to this point is difficult and I think we’ve earned it. We’ve learned along the way, I think we’ve learned a lot last year in the process, and this year as well, but it’s going to be a tough road ahead that’s for sure.”
Now the Rush have to prepare for the league’s regular season champions, the Toronto Rock, and the game plan is a little different than it was last week.
“I think Toronto, offensively, they share the ball so well and they move the ball,” Keenan said. “You can’t focus on any one guy or two guys or any one side of the floor so team defense is going to be essential to have success against them. We can’t even really match guys up on them because they’re deep on offense, and they all contribute, and they’re all unselfish. They’re a handful to play against and we’ll have to be at our best on the back end.”
A big part of that back end is Jeff Cornwall, who had a spectacular game last week against the Roughnecks, pairing strong defensive play with scoring the game-winning goal in the tie-breaker game. Cornwall’s success stems from a challenge given to him by his coach.
“Jeff is a special athlete and he’s a bit of a freak of nature how strong, and fast, and powerful he is. About three quarters the way through the season, I thought he had sort of taken a step backwards in his play. We challenged him and we actually sat him out a game and since then, I think he’s been our best guy.”
For the Rock, after its thrilling come-from-behind East Finals series win over the three-time defending champion Rochester Knighthawks, Toronto will make a bid for the franchise’s seventh all-time Champion’s Cup in the full best-of-three series over the next three weekends.
The admirable effort last weekend included an 11-8 Game 2 win over Rochester before surprisingly decisive 8-2 thrashing in the 10-minute tiebreaker Game 3, paving the way for the Rock’s first Champion’s Cup appearance since winning it all in 2011.
“I’m very pleased with our effort last Saturday night, we were able to take the momentum from Game 2 into that mini-game, and were fortunate to get a couple early goals,” said Rock head coach John Lovell. “Then it steamrolled for us. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Rock forward Josh Sanderson opened the tiebreaker game’s scoring by netting two goals over the first 1:13. Toronto, with its 10,000-plus fan crowd at the ACC behind them, went on to score another five-straight goals en route to the 8-2 final.
“It was good to start with a powerplay in [the mini game], and once you get that first one, you get the crowd going,” said Rock captain Sanderson, who will play for his third Champion’s Cup ring. “You figure it’s going to be a 2-1 or 3-2 mini game like they have been in the past, but it was nice to get that lead and put [Rochester] out.”
Thanks to a league-best 14-4 record, the Rock will have the opportunity to open the series on home floor, a place they have been nearly perfect in 2015. Toronto has only dropped two games at Air Canada Centre, but it would be remiss not to note that one of those defeats did come at the hands of the Rush. The Rock fell 11-9, which at the time, was its first home loss of the season.
“That was one of the goals – to see if we could get that home floor advantage, but whether it means anything or not, we’ll see,” said Lovell.
“[The Rush] are good everywhere – offensively and defensively,” said Sanderson. “[The coaching staff] has done a great job with those guys, we know got our hands full.”
The Rock did get a taste of victory against Edmonton however as they snagged a thrilling 16-15 overtime win in Alberta on Feb. 27. The high-scoring battle saw the Rush come back from a 15-11 deficit in the fourth frame before Rock forward Rob Hellyer spoiled the show with an rifle point shot in extra time.
Lovell has indicated all year that the key to Toronto’s success is a well-balanced game – good play on both ends of the floor. There was no question of that being on display in the East Finals. The Rock outscored Rochester 28-20 over the three-game series and a big shout out has to go to goalie Brandon Miller. Miller, allowing just 9.23 goals per match this playoff, out-duelled Matt Vinc, who many regard as the league’s top netminder.
Miller’s present counterpart however is not any less of a challenge. Rush goalie Aaron Bold (9.44 GAA) was statistically the league’s top goalie over the 2015 regular season.
“Aaron [Bold] is a great goaltender and he’s the backboard of a solid defense,” Lovell admitted. “We know it’s not going to be easy to score against him. But we’ve had some success with our team approach, we share the ball and get contributions from lots of guys. That’s what it’s going to take to beat them.”
“We have a really good team offense and it really came into play against Rochester and we’ll need it to come into play against Edmonton,” Sanderson said.
By Mike Wilson (@RushBeat) & Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) for NLL.com. Photo by Dale MacMillan.