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Eastbound & Down: Rush At Rock In Primetime

After an overtime thriller two weeks ago between the Edmonton Rush (5-4) and the Toronto Rock (10-2), the two division leaders will battle again in a rematch that promises to keep fans on the edge of their seats. The Rush will fly in to play the Rock at Air Canada Centre on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET live on TSN 2 and TSN GO in Canada and WatchESPN in the United States.

Previous to its win over the Vancouver Stealth last Saturday night, the Rush suffered two heartbreaking overtime losses, including one to the Toronto Rock. After accepting a challenge from their coaches, the team went on to break a franchise record for goals in a game with 19.

“The challenge was ‘let’s go back to being a tenacious team, to putting that compete level to the highest that we can,'” Keenan said after Saturday night’s game. “And I think we did tonight, we really answered the bell.”

Now it’s up the Rush to keep playing urgent as they get another chance to beat the league leaders and solidify their perch atop the West Division. They currently only sit a half game up on Colorado for the West Division lead.

Not only did last week’s game see Mark Matthews break out and set the franchise record for most points in a regular season game with nine (4+5), but it also saw Tyler Melynk score not just his first NLL goal in his first game, but three more and one assist to give him a five point debut.

“It was awesome just being able to step into the lineup and to be able to contribute with four goals, I didn’t really expect to hop in and do that right away,” said Melnyk.

Melynk saw the floor with an injury to Rush left-handed forward Riley Loewen, but after his impressive debut, you may see both players in the lineup on Saturday.

“We like all of our offensive guys, including Tyler and Riley Loewen,” said Keenan. “And it’s a great luxury to have that depth. We like what they both bring so you never know, you might see both of them.”

Melnyk knows that even if he is put back into the lineup immediately, that he still has to work on the things that have lead to his early success.

“I just have to keep on working, try to get into those dirty areas, and get guys open because that will create chances for myself,” said Melnyk. “Just have to keep working and battling and hope the opportunities keep coming.”

The Rush selected Melnyk, an Alberta native, 19th overall in the 2014 NLL Entry Draft.

An emotional weekend split against the Buffalo Bandits in Week 11 is perhaps just what the doctor ordered for the Rock as they start the trek into the final third of the season schedule.

While last week did come with a defeat – their first in seven games – Toronto comes from the perilous journey with a refined sense of companionship and continuity. Fights, lopsided scoring runs and emotions were aplenty during Toronto and Buffalo’s breaking of the bread, and for the Rock, it registers as a positive.

“Situations like that can really help the character of team and build the character of a team, we’re becoming a tighter knit group every game,” said Rock assistant captain Sandy Chapman.

Chapman was a part of what can be described as a very aggressive defensive unit in Week 11. Three different Rock players dropped the mitts, Rob Marshall gave Bandit captain John Tavares an arguable cheap shot, inspiring Buffalo coach Troy Cordingley to lose his temper, and Patrick Merrill delivered a couple of crushing blows to Chad Culp and Dhane Smith.

“The events and emotions that get played up from [the weekend] can really bring a team closer together,” said Chapman. “Although Friday was a loss we can take a feeling of trust from that.”

That feeling of trust now resinates in the Rock dressing room as they get ready to host the West Division’s top team in the Edmonton Rush. A polished Toronto defense will have an opportunity to redeem their previous effort against the Rush, an effort of which included a season-high 15 goals against.

“I believe Edmonton is still the strongest team in the West Division, if not the strongest team in the league,” said Rock head coach John Lovell, who has carried the Rock to its best-ever start to a season. “They are good in every area, we had a great game with them in Edmonton. Both teams probably gave up more goals then they would have liked to.”

“We’re expecting a really tough game and we’re looking forward to it,” he said.

In the teams’ last meeting nearly three weeks ago, the Rock came away with a nail-bitting 16-15 victory in overtime. A pat on the back can go to the league’s leading point-getter Rob Hellyer, who sniped the OT winner from the left half-boards.

But this came after a disastrous fourth quarter for the Rock. Nearly 10 minutes of tenuous play allowed the Rush to scratch and claw their way back into the game after being down 15-11 in the fourth frame. Four-straight Rush goals (over 6:22) made overtime inevitable, but the Rock – as they have done all season – overcame the adversity by shutting the door for nearly five minutes in extra time.

Toronto will play four of its next five games at home, a place they have been without failure all season. While holding a 5-0 record at the Air Canada Centre, the Rock have a goal differential of +10. Only once have Toronto’s defensive unit allowed more than 11 goals on home floor (New England scored 12 times in a losing effort on February 20).

It’s not difficult to find attribution. The Rock lead the league in just about every statistical category excluding faceoff percentage (.343). No other team has gobbled up more loose balls, or shot more times on target. No other team has a higher powerplay percentage (55.77) and penalty kill success rate (71.19).

By Mike Wilson (@RushBeat) & Justin Millerson (@RockBeatToronto) for NLL.com. Photo by Graig Abel.