This Friday, the Colorado Mammoth will host the Saskatchewan Rush in the first regular season matchup of the 2019-20 NLL season. For those who watched, this will be a much-anticipated rematch of the 2019 West Division Semifinal, where the Mammoth pulled off a major upset of the one-seeded Rush team in Saskatoon.
The shock in the playoff game came off of the regular season finale where the Mammoth were playing the Rush in Saskatchewan and lost 8-13. The Rush dominated the Mammoth during the regular season, sweeping all three games by a combined score of 31-22. The Mammoth made it into the playoffs as the 4 seed (6-12), while the Rush took the West Division (11-7) again and looked to continue their streak of advancing to the NLL Finals for the 5th straight season.
During the West Division Semifinal, Saskatchewan got on the board first but Colorado immediately responded by scoring three straight goals in a span of 3:10, finishing the first quarter leading 3-2. The game remained fairly quite until the 4th quarter, where the teams scored a combined nine goals. Colorado entered the quarter trailing 4-7 but Eli McLaughlin got the Mammoth within two goals in the first minute of the 4th quarter. Jeff Shattler quickly responded for the Rush to make it a three-goal game again. The Mammoth then went on to their best run of the game, scoring four straight goals, capped off by Jacob Ruest’s goal to give the Mammoth a 9-8 lead with 6:40 remaining in the game. With less than one-minute remaining, Ben McIntosh scored an odd goal for many to see, having scooped the ball out of the crease when it looked like Robert Hope and Dillon Ward had the ball secured. With the score tied 10-10, the teams entered a sudden death overtime period. The game winning goal came from two-time NLL Transition Player of the Year, Joey Cupido who intercepted a pass on the defensive end and ran the breakaway, putting the ball past Evan Kirk to stun the Saskatchewan crowd. The Mammoth’s season would end a week later versus the eventual champions, Calgary Roughnecks.
During the off-season leading into this game, two new teams to the NLL were able to select their roster, making a total of 13 teams to compete for the NLL Cup. The division realignment, which expanded the league to three divisions (West, North, and East) has made the road to the playoffs more difficult in the West Division. Now the only division with five teams (Calgary, Colorado, Saskatchewan, San Diego, and Vancouver) only the top two teams are guaranteed a spot in the postseason. Starting off the season with a critical division matchup could play a big part in the final standings.
With the expansion draft, free agency and trades, both teams have very familiar faces as well as missing a couple of key pieces from their prior seasons roster. Notable players no longer on the Mammoth side are forwards Jeremy Noble (traded to SD) and Cory Vitarelli (FA to PHI), defenseman Brad Self (retired), and goalie Steve Fryer (selected in expansion to ROC). For Saskatchewan, Nik Bilic (traded to VAN), Curtis Knight (selected in expansion by Rochester), and Scott Campbell (FA to HFX) are key departures for the Rush.
New faces for each of these franchises include first round selections from the NLL Entry Draft, Holden Garlent (SAS), Warren Jeffrey (COL), and Tanner Thomson (SAS), as well as second round picks, Will Malcom (COL) and Brett Craig (COL). Colorado was able to add large bodies on the teams already tough defense and a few promising scorers whereas Saskatchewan was able to plug in a few players as role players to their team that has been kings of the West for a handful of years.
Looking at the matchup, although the Mammoth lost all three regular season matchups to the Rush last season, the Mammoth were the only team to hold the Rush’s prolific offense to under 10 goals in a game and did it twice. The game could be decided by the end of the first quarter. The team who led after the first won all 4 matchups and the teams combined last season went 12-1 when leading after the first.
Based off the performances from last season, don’t be surprised if this is another low scoring affair. Colorado returns the core of their defense and still has former NLL Goaltender of the Year, Dillon Ward. Colorado is the only team to hold opponents under 200 goals over each of the last three seasons and was the least penalized team last year. In the other net will be Evan Kirk, who is no slouch, going 6-4 last season with an 11.54 GAA. Colorado will need to figure out who will be their go to scoring threat. Eli McLaughlin returns as a strong lefty who set career highs in goals, assists, and points as the scoring leader for the Mammoth. Colorado will be without the services of other left-handed forwards Jeff Wittig and Chris Wardle, who start the season with injuries. This could make McLaughlin’s night a lot tougher without those counterparts. Now in his sophomore season, Kyle Killen took the league by storm last year, finishing with 28 goals, second among rookies to only Rookie of the Year winner, Austin Staats. Ryan Lee also took a major step forward in his sophomore season last year playing alongside his RIT teammate, Killen. For Saskatchewan, expect Mark Matthews to continue his dominance on the left side and be looking for Ben McIntosh, who both finished tied for 4th in the NLL last season with 41 goals.
Watch this game for free on the NLL’s streaming partner, B/R Live. All games during the first two weeks of the NLL season will be streamed for free. Fans can watch their favorite team or every team all season long on B/R Live.