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Il Indoor: Observations From Champion’S Cup Finals

The Saskatchewan Rush made history as just the sixth team in National Lacrosse League history to win back-to-back titles by defeating the Buffalo Bandits at home in front of over 15,000 fans at a sold-out SaskTel Centre on Saturday night. Preview Stephen Stamp’s observations from the clinching win below and find the full story on IL Indoor.

“It took 59:48 of the 60 minutes in Game 2 but the Saskatchewan Rush earned their second straight sweep of the Champion’s Cup finals, downing the Buffalo Bandits 11-10 Saturday night when Jeff Cornwall scored on a breakaway with 12 seconds to play,” Stamp writes. “The game, against all odds, lived up to the thrill-a-minute excitement of Game 1, even if the quality of play—understandably–was slightly lower.”

One aspect of the game that even outshone last week’s contest was the play of Aaron Bold. The Rush keeper turned away 47 of 57 shots, including stoning the great Dhane Smith driving alone to the net late. His .825 save percentage in Game 2 provides ample evidence of why Bold was named the series’ MVP.

Below, some observations from a riveting final game to the 2016 season.

* I saw more mistakes in this game than in Game 1 but it was still brilliant lacrosse. The level in Game 1 was just so high, offensive chances were so hard to come by and the goals that were scored were the results of such precision plays that it’s hard to imagine it could have been any better. It wasn’t, but it wasn’t far off. Saskatchewan and Buffalo are two excellent lacrosse teams and while the Bandits won’t be taking home the Champions Cup, they should be holding their heads high after the season they just had.

* Derek Keenan said Curtis Knight would play a big role at some point and he was dead on. Knight, who was inconsistent in his first year back from knee reconstruction as many players are, had a pair of goals and three assists. He added a boost that the offence needed with Mark Matthews being handled effectively by the Bandit’s defence for much of the night (although Matthews still managed to score 2 goals and 4 assists). Knight’s second goal, in particular, was sensational. A perfect seal to open space on the pick and roll led to him being alone on top of the crease, where he threw a short but credible fake far side then tucked a slight twister into the near side. A healthy and effective Knight just makes the Rush better.

* There wasn’t a ton of transition in the game, but that is attributable to both teams recognizing how important the running game is to their opponents and working hard to take it away. The shortage just elevated the important of the transition goals that were scored, including of course Cornwall’s winner.

* Okay, let’s talk about that winning goal. Cornwall was excellent all series—in fact, all season and through the playoffs as well. He may not have shone any brighter, though, than in the sequence leading up to that final goal. The Bandits got the ball to Smith on a pick and roll that couldn’t have been played any better than Cornwall handled it, switching off his man to jump on Smith. Cornwall got out to Smith in time to take away the immediate shot without overrunning him and allowing a cutback, which is no easy task in and of itself.

Then Cornwall initiated a solid cross check that he was able to ride all the way down the alley, forcing Smith past the net unable to get a quality shot off and making it easy for Bold. When the Bandits got the ball back, Cornwall was ready for more. He was out in the lane when the shot was taken that bounded high off the back boards and he tracked it perfectly, positioning himself so that Smith couldn’t get past him but he was able to grab it and take off.

The speed he showed—Cornwall actually pulled away from Smith, which almost no one can do—was remarkable. The shot was perfectly placed. But the real beauty of that goal came at the other end of the floor.

* Speaking of outstanding defenders for the Rush, I saw Brett Mydske make two mistakes yesterday. I’m not sure I’ve even seen him make two mistakes in one game before. One came when he jumped out on Smith too quickly and overran his check, leaving Smith a lane to the net. The other came when he was trying to execute a switch and actually fell down. Neither resulted in a goal, but it’s still an anomaly for Mydske. He has been so reliable for Saskatchewan. It’s not just this year, although 2016 may have been his best season in the NLL. I had Mydske as the top player in the 2015 world championships because he was simply impeccable. If ever a player was underrated, it’s Brett Mydske. Just think what it says about his play that making two mistakes in a game against the top offence in the league stands out.

* I thought the officiating in Game 1 was excellent. I disagreed with a couple of calls in Game 2, but when you look at the game as a whole, the officials provided consistency. Mitch de Snoo was visibly upset on Zack Greer’s goal with four seconds left in the first half because he felt Matthews had ripped the stick out of his hands. He was probably right, but the call was consistent because Jarrett Davis was left to play a rebound with his feet earlier because Billy Dee Smith was still holding Davis’ stick in the slot as the Rush player ran towards the crease. Later in the game, there were a pair of holding the stick calls. How does that equal consistency? My guess is that the refs told both teams to knock it off and when they didn’t, the calls were made. There’s a lot more to reffing than just blowing your whistle, and communicating how you’re going to call the game then following through on it is a huge part. Kudos to the crew for a solid showing.

* There are some plays where it just doesn’t feel right for a team not to score. With a little over four minutes left in the first half, Ryan Benesch threw a pass from the left side to the right and somehow got the ball through to a teammate who was covered by two defenders. Even more amazingly, his teammate was able to get a pass back through the coverage to a cutting Benesch, who caught it with a defender draped all over him. Unfortunately for the Bandits, Bold anticipated the play perfectly and made the save actually look fairly routine, although it was anything but.

* One other Mydske point: not many guys can knock Dhane Smith flat on the floor like he did on the first possession of the second half. Even fewer would still be balanced, in position and alert enough to lay another big hit on the Bandit who picked up the resulting loose ball.

* Nick Weiss’ goal was a strange one, much like Kedoh Hill’s odd transition marker in Game 1. Great point made during the broadcast that 90% of coaches would have told Hill not to take that shot, with no one else even in the play yet, if they had a chance and saying that Troy Cordingley had said he’s in that 90%. Well, not many coaches would want Weiss taking the odd little hop shot on a one on one break with no support, either. But it’s hard to argue when he picks the top corner perfectly with the shot. It’s the old no-no-no-no-nice shot that I heard a few times from my high school basketball coach.

* The next goal was a power play marker by Benesch and it was a textbook example of a good shot selection. As Andy McNamara and Brian Shanahan noted, the subtlety of Benesch’s look to the top like he was going to throw the ball back to Smith then turning to release a shot and hit an open spot barely larger than the ball, well, it was spectacular.

* About McNamara and Shanahan. I’m a bit biased because I’ve worked with both and consider both friends. But I believe I’m able to impartially say that the game call was very good in both games. It’s a real pleasure to hear solid announcers with excellent chemistry and timing. Good work, fellas.

* The Ben McIntosh goal that followed Benesch’s marker was a momentum-turner. It looked like a Buffalo player had possessed the ball momentarily in the corner off a rebound, so the 30-second clock was reset and the Rush had plenty of time to work. The refs huddled, though, and agreed that there hadn’t been sufficient possession. That meant while the Rush still had the ball they only had four seconds to get a shot off. McIntosh looked like he was going to try to feed the ball down to Knight on the wing but instead just let a sidearm fly that somehow eluded Anthony Cosmo.

* Then Greer scored from even further out. Greer was barely inside the Buffalo zone and it was early in the shot clock, but something told him that was a good shot to take. Granted, there was a screen and Cosmo may never have seen the ball on its way to the net, but it was a strange shot selection. As with Weiss’ goal, though, it’s hard to argue when the ball goes in.

* There was nothing strange about Mark Steenhuis’ that followed, simply hard work and execution. David Brock, who may be almost as underrated as Mydske, showed a combination of diligence and stick skill to win a loose ball battle with Robert Church along the boards in the Buffalo end. Brock then got up the floor, left the ball for Steenhuis and laid a hard but legal pick on a Saskatchewan defender. The seal was excellent and Steenhuis shot over it to put Buffalo back in front.

Click here for the full story by Stephen Stamp on Inside Lacrosse via IL Indoor. Photo by Josh Schaefer.