The reigning champs are headed back to the dance.
A 12-9 win over the Vancouver Warriors clinched a playoff spot for the Saskatchewan Rush as the defending NLL Cup title-holders also completed a season-series sweep over their West Division rival before a raucous crowd at SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon. The victory also put a stop to a gut-wrenching two-game losing streak for the Rush (7-6).
After dropping back-to-back games each by a single goal, the Rush stormed out of the gates on a pair of goals by Robert Church, built up a 10-2 cushion at halftime, and then clung tight to the lead through a late surge by the Warriors (4-11).
“The first goal at the beginning of the season is to clinch a playoff spot,” said Church, who finished with four goals, including a first-quarter hat trick.
“Now we want to win more games, get as high in the standings as we can, and get a home playoff game because this is a tough place to play.”
After two goals from teammate Ryan Keenan, highlighted by a terrific individual effort as he bulled his way past two defenders to get to the Vancouver net, Church put a cap on his first-quarter hat trick as he took shovel pass from Mark Matthews and gunned a shot past Warriors goalie Eric Penney.
The Rush bolstered their lead by completing a seven-goal run in the second quarter. Ben McIntosh made it 7-1 after taking a hit, getting back to his feet and tip-toeing along the crease before bouncing a shot in. Just 58 seconds later, Jeff Shattler was left all alone in the slot and he wired a shot home to make it 9-1 which spelled the end of the night for Penney.
Former Rush goalie Aaron Bold took over in the Warriors net and the visitors got a goal back from Jean-Luc Chetner, but the Rush padded their lead on Church’s fourth as he went top shelf on a Saskatchewan power play. Shattler ended the first-half barrage with a low heater that eluded Bold.
The Warriors, who saw their own playoff hopes take a big hit last weekend with two losses to Colorado, weren’t going to fade away, however. A three-goal run made it 10-5 before McIntosh counted his second of the game as he curled out of the corner and lasered a shot to the far side of the net.
Vancouver still wasn’t deterred in the fourth and made things very tight down the stretch as Mitch Jones and Keegan Bal scored 23 seconds apart and then Jordan McBride and Bal counted goals with under four minutes to go to cut the Rush lead to 11-9. The home side were able to put the game away, though, when Shattler collected his hat-trick on an empty-netter with 25 seconds left.
Church (4 goals, 3 assists) and Mark Matthews (1 goal, 7 assists) paced the Rush attack, while Keenan also had a four-point night. The result also marked the first home-turf victory for Rush goalie Adam Shute, who had previously earned both of his career wins on the road – both coming in Vancouver. Shute racked up 32 saves in the win.
Bal (3 goals, 2 assists) led Vancouver’s offence with Jones adding two goals.
The Rush are back on the road next Saturday when they take on the Colorado Mammoth, while the Warriors have a bye weekend before returning home on April 14th to play the Philadelphia Wings.