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First Mission: Rush & Stealth Aim For West’S Top Spot

Wins are equally important at all stages of the year, and this week’s matchup between the Edmonton Rush (4-4) and the Vancouver Stealth (4-4) for first place might prove to be as crucial as it will ever be. The Stealth will make its first visit to Rexall Place this season on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on NLL LIVE in the U.S. and TSN GO in Canada.

This will be the final game of a four-game homestand for the Rush who have suffered back-to-back overtime losses to Toronto and Calgary. There have been moments in both games where they were playing well and had opportunities to win, but those moments don’t show up in the standings.

For Edmonton general manager and head coach Derek Keenan, the team’s play hasn’t been consistent at the level it needs to be.

“I don’t think we’re playing well,” Keenan said. “Our compete level is not where it should be, where it has been in the past, and it needs to be better. I think we need to play with more grit, there’s some things on defense that we’ve done uncharacteristically that we haven’t in the last couple weeks, and we need to fix it. I think the biggest thing is…our guys have become a little bit complacent and we need to get back to that urgency we’ve played with in the past.”

One would be hard pressed to say the Rush’s defense is struggling, but it has the reputation of being the best group in the league, a title that doesn’t come without expectations. They have allowed 28 goals in their last two games, a number the team would like to be much lower.

“Our defense hasn’t been like it’s been in the past and we’re hoping to change that this weekend,” said Rush defender Ryan Dilks. “Vancouver’s got a lot of firepower, they’re playing well, and obviously coming off of a huge 20-goal game, they’re going to be clicking again. We’ll have to be ready and we’ll have to play our A-game.”

Saturday night marks the first time Corey Small will be back at Rexall Place after being traded to the Stealth earlier this season. Small was drafted ninth overall in the 2009 NLL Draft by the Edmonton Rush and was a key part of their offense since his inception into the league. The Rush played all of last season without Small, and after a 0-2 start, decided to part ways to get back to the offensive setup that made them successful during its record-breaking regular season. In five games with the Stealth, Small has 32 points (13+19), and sits second on the team with 6.4 points per game.

“We obviously feel great for Corey, that he’s doing so well,” said Keenan. “He’s a great kid, he’s the first kid I drafted in Edmonton. I have a lot of strong feelings about him as a person and he’s a great player so I’m glad to see him do well. We hope to deter him a bit this weekend though that’s for sure.

“He’s a unique player, because he shoots the ball so well. If he gets an inch to shoot the ball, he’s going to score quite often.”

If Edmonton is to be successful Saturday night, they will have to shut down not only Small, but the rest of a high-powered Stealth offense that averages 14.25 goals per game, the best in the league.

The Stealth must have enjoyed its bye week considering they didn’t play a game yet moved from a second place to a share of top spot in the NLL’s West Division. And Vancouver can grab sole possession of top spot with a victory this weekend as they head into Edmonton’s Rexall Place to play the Rush in a battle of 4-4 teams.

It is the first meeting of the season between the two teams and they come in on opposite streaks. The Stealth have won three of its past four games to get back to .500 while the Rush have dropped a pair of overtime games to fall to 4-4.

“I am sure we are going to face a real hungry Edmonton team,” said Stealth coach Dan Perreault. “I am sure they are not happy losing a couple of overtime (games).”

Rhys Duch, the Stealth’s leading scorer with 22 goals and 52 points, is happy the team’s on a roll, but knows how quickly things can change — after all, the Stealth had an early-season three-game losing streak themselves.

“A 4-4 season isn’t your highest plan when you are first staring, but to have a chance at first is a positive thing,” he said. “CH (Chris Hall) always told us to get wins at the beginning of the year; it seems a lot easier than to get them at the end of the year when you really need them. (But) every game is important in an 18-game season.”

This is the first of five straight games for Vancouver against Edmonton and Colorado (4-5) the two teams they are jockeying with for playoff positioning. The Stealth are coming off its most impressive win of the season, scoring a season-high 21 goals in a 21-15 victory over the Minnesota Swarm two weeks ago.

“Anytime you score 20 goals, you are doing something right,” Duch said. “We have had success on that side of the ball. That being said, we haven’t played a defense like Edmonton. They are kind of unique in this league. They have been one of the strongest for a couple of years. It is going to be a test to see if we can keep that high output going.”

The Rush have allowed a league-low 82 goals on the season while the Stealth counter with the second most-potent offense. A big part of that has been the addition of Corey Small — who came over from Edmonton in January.

Perreault said that Small — who is averaging more than six points per game with Vancouver — has been a great fit for the team, using his tremendous shot and displaying good chemistry with his new teammates. One more win and the Stealth will surpass last seasons total of four victories.

“We try not to talk about last year just because of the way things went,” said Duch, adding that the team needs to stay hungry for the second half of the season and not get complacent.

By Mike Wilson (@RushBeat) & Gary Ahuja (@VanStealthBeat) for NLL.com. Photo by Dale MacMillan.

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