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Highway 2: Roughnecks & Rush Finish Home-And-Home

After clinching a playoff spot last week with back-to-back wins over the Vancouver Stealth, the Edmonton Rush (9-4) look to clinch a home playoff date during the team’s Battle of Alberta home-and-home series against its provincial rival Calgary Roughnecks (4-10). The first game will be played on Friday night at Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary at 9:30 p.m. ET live on TSN2 & TSN GO in Canada and WatchESPN in the U.S. The rematch takes place at Rexall Place in Edmonton on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET live on TSN GO (Canada) and NLL LIVE (U.S.).

Atop the West Division standings, Edmonton is currently on a five-game winning streak and has outscored its opponents by 35 goals over that span.

“I think we had a pretty good weekend,” said Rush general manager and head coach Derek Keenan. “Vancouver pushed us pretty hard on Friday, and we managed to pull it out in overtime, and then I thought we were a little bit better on Saturday night in Vancouver. I look forward to this weekend, and we just got to keep on trying to get better, and maybe put a little distance between ourselves and Colorado, but it’s going to be tough.”

“This is playoff time pretty much, in terms of, we’re trying to get into a better position, and Calgary’s trying to get in a position, so they’re desperate, and they’re always great games anyways,” he added.

This year hasn’t been record-breaking in terms of wins like last season’s undefeated run was, but it is in other ways for the franchise.

Both Mark Matthews and Zack Greer have surpassed their career highs in goals, assist, and points, with Matthews already breaking the single-season franchise record in both goals and points, with five games still remaining. Matthews needs just seven assists to own the single-season team record in assists as well.

This season, Greer became the number one goal scorer in franchise history, with 131 goals and counting. The Rush’s current assistant coach Jimmy Quinlan, who sits in second place, has 98.

In just his third season, Matthews ranks second among the franchise’s all-time scoring leaders, with 232 career points. The current leader is Ryan Ward, who has 264 points with the franchise.

Robert Church is an often-overlooked part of a deadly Edmonton offensive, though the emerging star sits second on the team in points with 68 (30+38). Church has also passed all the markers he set offensively in his rookie year. Last year, Edmonton’s defense was the main story, but this time around, its offense is getting their fair share of the praise.

“We’ve just been running our system very well,” said Church. “This year, more than last year, I’d say we’re burying our opportunities a little better and with some more timely goals.”

“Calgary’s a great team and where they sit in the standings definitely doesn’t dictate that. It’s going to be a great battle with them, as it is every time we play them, so having a home-and-home with them is going to be a real fun time. Me personally, I always enjoy playing Calgary.”

This weekend will mark the second home-and-home series for the Riggers this season. Last week, they earned a split against the Colorado Mammoth, losing in 9-8 on the road in overtime, then triumphing over the Mammoth by a score of 14-9 at home on Saturday.

“I thought the first game was a good defensive battle,” said Roughnecks head coach Curt Malawsky. “It came down to that one shot again, I thought we had a real good look in overtime. (Alex) Buque made a good save and put the ball in Johnny Grant’s stick, and Junior does what he does, got a big one for them. But we were able to re-focus coming home, and made a couple adjustments.”

“Our offense at times got a little bit predictable as to what side of the floor the ball was on. With a dynamic group that we have up front, if we play a little bit more unpredictable offensively, it’s real tough to cover,” Malawsky said. “The six guys up there, they did that on the second night. They saw the results that we got, everybody shared the ball, the work, and the responsibility.”

2013 NLL MVP Shawn Evans, who already has 105 points (36+69) this year, had a huge contribution to the game against Colorado with 3 goals and 9 assists. Evans is on a steady track to break the NLL scoring record of 116 points. Coaching staff can’t say enough about his contributions to the team this season.

“He’s having a great season,” Malawsky said. “But I think if you asked him, he’d rather be up in the standings than be up in the scoring race…When you want to go to battle and you want to go to war with a teammate, that’s the guy you want to go with. All he wants to do is win, and he does whatever it takes to win and that’s something that’s really contagious on our team.”

The ‘Necks are going to have to keep its momentum going as they play the Rush, they have fallen short every game against Edmonton this year. This weekend will be quite a test for the team as they run the home stretch of the regular season.

“We’re very familiar with each other and we battled real tough over the years. We don’t usually play too well in the regular season at home against Edmonton. So we’re hoping to try and change that come Friday night,” Malawsky admitted. “We’re coming up against a real tough opponent…. It’s going to really be a challenge, and we definitely have to be building off the positives. We have to to focus on what we did successfully, but again it’s a different dynamic, a different animal playing Edmonton. If we thought we played well last weekend, we’re going to need to be much better this weekend.”

Keeping the teamwork alive and playing as they have been lately may be enough to secure them a play-off spot this year. If the Vancouver Stealth (4-9) loses its next contest against the Toronto Rock (11-4), and the Riggers win Friday, they will be one half game ahead of the Stealth, putting the ‘Necks in a playoff position.

“We slipped up early in the season, and we like to think we’re playing better lacrosse right now. We’ve shored up some things that we deemed were a few of our weaknesses, and we’ve got better on some of the things up front,” Malawsky said. “We’ve got our sights on this weekend…that’s what we’re preparing for right now. What other teams do that we’re chasing, we can’t control. We can only control what’s in front of us.”

Calgary transition player Geoff Snider agrees with his coach, the team is taking this season one game at a time. Instead of looking ahead to the last games of the season and postseason scenarios, they are paying special attention to the task at hand.

“We’re just focusing on us, we’re preparing accordingly, and we know what’s in front of us. We’re just going to continue to keep chipping away and playing as a group,” Snider said.

This weekend’s Battle of Alberta home and home series will surely be a pivotal point in the season for the Riggers, as the race for the playoffs continues.

“We both know each other very well,” Malawsky said. “It’s just great games, it’s great for the province, and it’s great for the guys involved so we’re excited to get back at it.”

By Mike Wilson (@RushBeat) & Laura Bates (@RoughnecksBeat) for NLL.com. Photo by Brad Watson.