If there’s anyone who doubts whether the Saskatchewan Rush can come back from a one-game deficit in the Champion’s Cup Final, they won’t be found inside the team’s locker room.
Sure, the Rush are down 1-0 in the best-of-three NLL championship series to the Georgia Swarm after Sunday’s 18-14 loss. And yes, the Rush’s playoff winning streak has now come to an end after nine straight victories.
Are the Rush done? Are they in trouble?
Not in the least.
“We absolutely feel like we can still win this series,” said Rush forward Robert Church. “We’ve got our backs against the wall and we will do whatever it takes to win Saturday and force a Game 3 back in Georgia.”
The last time the Rush faced elimination in a playoff series came in the march to claiming their first Cup in 2015. After beating Calgary in Game 1 of the West Final, the Rush dropped Game 2 which forced both teams into the dreaded 10-minute mini-game to decide their fortune. The Rush wound up winning the mini 4-1 behind a stepped-effort from Mark Matthews and a clutch goal courtesy of Jeff Cornwall.
“I definitely believe we have the ability to force Game 3,” was the word from Rush defenceman Mike Messenger. “We are ready to go and are excited to play at home.”
The Rush have certainly excelled on the turf at SaskTel Centre. Since moving to Saskatoon, the Rush have produced a 15-3 home record in regular-season action and are a perfect 3-0 in the playoffs including last year’s Cup-clinching victory over the Buffalo Bandits.
Last season’s two home playoff dates produced record-setting attendance figures for the franchise as well as for SaskTel Centre. It’s a spectacular atmosphere that’s unrivaled in the NLL and hard to beat anywhere in the sports world.
The vibe from more than 14,000 raucous fans has certainly played a part in the Rush’s now boasting the toughest arena to play in for visiting teams.
“I definitely think that playing in front of our crowd at home is an advantage for us,” noted Church, who sits second in playoff scoring with 20 points, just two behind leader and teammate Mark Matthews.
“We were solid at home all season long and we hope to continue that this weekend. We’re going to need them to be loud on Saturday night.”
Messenger, the Rush’s second of two first-round picks in the last NLL Entry Draft, watched the team enjoy the rowdy antics inside their home arena last season. It’s much better being right in the middle of it this season.
“Being at the best arena in the league with the loudest fans is definitely going to help, so I am hoping that there isn’t an empty seat,” said Messenger of the expected Game 2 scene.
“The louder the fans get is going to help us for sure.”
Role Reversal: Over the past two regular seasons, there hasn’t been a better power-play shooter in the NLL than the Rush’s Robert Church. He led the league with 17 in 2016 then bested his own mark by scoring 21 in 2017. His primary set-up man was Mark Matthews, who has racked up 52 power-play assists over the same timeframe, including a league-best 29 this season.
But in these playoffs, the Rush’s dynamic duo has switched roles. Church has a league-high eight power-play assists, while Matthews along with Rush mates Adam Jones and Ben McIntosh each have three power-play goals.
In Game 1 of the Cup Final, power-play efficiency was a big part of Saskatchewan gaining the upper hand until Georgia’s seven-goal outburst spoiled the night for the two-time defending champs.
“I don’t think we let off the gas at all,” surmised Church. “I think their offence just took advantage of some mistakes by our defence and capitalized. We have the best defence in the league and they will make some adjustments and bounce back this weekend.
“It’s going to take a complete team effort this weekend to extend this series, but I think we’re extremely capable.”