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Battle of the Prairies 2021-22 Round 1 Preview

The National Lacrosse League’s version of the Canadian Hatfield-McCoy feud kicks off this weekend with the Calgary Roughnecks and Saskatchewan Rush both looking to bounce back after season-opening losses.

For the defending champion Roughnecks, who travel east one province to face the Rush at SaskTel Centre in this season’s first Battle of the Prairies on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET/TSN in Canada and ESPN+ in the U.S.), it’s a matter of their top gunslingers continuing to set an example for secondary shooters.

Jesse King, Calgary’s new floor general, led the Roughnecks with six points (2 goals, 4 assists) in their 16-9 loss at Buffalo last weekend while 10-year veteran Curtis Dickson scored 4 goals, three of which were of the leaping “Superman” kind, and added 1 assist.

King, in his third season with Calgary after battling injuries in 2019 and pandemic-shortened 2020, is stepping into a leadership role vacated with the departure of 2019 NLL MVP Dane Dobbie to San Diego during the past offseason.

“Dane was a leader, and a tremendous person to learn from, so it is a bittersweet feeling,” says King. “As far as leadership goes, we have an awesome group of core guys on this team. I do feel like our whole left side has the ability to rise to the occasion, and play as a unit to try and replace the production that is now gone.”

In 42 regular-season career games with Georgia and Calgary, King has 61 goals and 115 assists for 176 points.

“Jesse is our floor general, our focal point, the ball will go through him,” says Calgary head coach Curt Malawsky. “His leadership skills and work ethic, he’s a massive part of our team.”

Malawsky, who had watched and scouted King for years before the Roughnecks acquired the southpaw in 2018, saw King learn under the veteran lefty Dobbie during Calgary’s championship run in 2019.

King recorded 6 goals and 11 assists for 17 points in four postseason games as the Roughnecks captured the last NLL title. He had only played in six regular-season games for Calgary up to that point.

“My goal is to stay healthy, and do the best I can, and if that means stepping up into a bigger role, then that’s what I will do,” says King.

“Jesse is a team-first guy that leads by example on and off the floor,” says Roughnecks rover Zach Currier, who netted 1 transition goal and collected 16 loose balls at Buffalo. “We are looking for him to be one of our primary ball carriers on the left side and help the younger guys get comfortable with the offence. We will be relying on him heavily this year.”

But for Calgary’s offence, it’s also a matter of handling the ball better and making smarter decisions.

“We had an insurmountable amount of turnovers,” coach Malawsky says of the season opener against Buffalo. The Roughnecks coughed up 14 turnovers and flogged 58 shots on goal. “We had 50-plus shots but we were standing around, not many high-quality looks.”

For Malawsky, it’s as simple as this: “Get to the middle, get to the dirty areas and put the ball in.”

Calgary’s secondary scoring will be key this weekend against Saskatchewan, which lost 12-11 in overtime at Halifax in Week 1, and as the season progresses.

“One night someone is going to have a good game, and the next it will be someone different,” says King. “What matters to us is being the hard-nosed, chip-on-our-shoulder, tough-working team that we are. That is when we are successful.

“And the only way to measure that is if we are holding that Cup at the end of the year. The majority of our team has a taste of what winning that championship feels like and we want that feeling again.”

– Family feud-style twist:

King, 29, plays on the Roughnecks with his younger brother Marshal, 24, a second-year righthander who is trying to solidify a spot on Calgary’s roster.

The King brothers trained together in their hometown of Victoria, BC during the pandemic layoff. Marshal says Jesse was “an animal in the weight room.”

Currier, 27, will face his older brother Josh, 28, a fifth-year forward in his first season with Saskatchewan after previous stops in Rochester and Philadelphia. The Curriers are from Peterborough ON.

“There’s a sibling rivalry this season between my brother and I now that he plays on Saskatchewan,” says Calgary’s Currier, an NLL Second Team All-Pro in 2018 and 2019.

– Added incentive:

The Roughnecks-Rush game on Saturday is also the third game of the all-Canadian Alterna Cup, an in-season competition among the five NLL teams located north of the border. Saskatchewan lost to Halifax in last weekend’s Alterna opener. Toronto plays at Halifax on Friday in the second of the series.

– Game of the Week on TSN:

Saturday’s game will be broadcast nationally on TSN (8:30 p.m. ET), a big deal in Canada.

“I think it’s great, playing the game we love on TSN, getting eyeballs on the game,” says Malawsky, from Coquitlam, British Columbia.

SaskTel Centre is a “great building to play in” with an “electric atmosphere,” Malawsky says. “Guys will be fired up and excited.”

Adds Currier: “It’s pretty cool that our games will be broadcast on one of the stations I grew up glued to. It is an awesome step forward. Perhaps the most important is the inspiration it will provide to young lacrosse players aspiring to be NLL players someday. It will be awesome for them to be able to watch big Saturday night games live on TSN and learn from the best players in the world.”