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Rush Defence Responds To Challenge

A year ago today, the Saskatchewan Rush pulled off a major pre-trade deadline deal that saw them acquire future Hall of Famer Dan Dawson.

If there’s another similar trade in the works, Rush GM/head coach Derek Keenan isn’t offering details. There’s still one game – a huge Saturday night home-turf showdown against the Calgary Roughnecks – and a bye week to go before the NLL’s trade deadline for the 2019 season, so the Rush have some time to consider any potential wheeling and dealing.

“We’ve thrown some ideas around within our (coaching) group, but I haven’t talked to any teams at all,” said Keenan, who will likely get an even better idea where his team is at if they can avenge a February 2nd home loss to Calgary and firm up their spot atop the West Division.

The Rush have a narrow-as-narrow-can-be one-half game lead over Calgary and San Diego in the West heading into this weekend’s games. There’s a deeper race at hand since the NLL expanded its playoff format to four teams in each division and removed the direct bye for the first-place team into the Division Final. It’s also made the race much more interesting in that nine, arguably 10, teams across the league are vying for their playoff lives.

Keenan is certainly going to keep his eyes and ears open to any possibilities of improving the defending champs’ roster ahead of the deadline, but he isn’t about to mortgage the future – one which includes three first-round picks in the 2019 NLL Entry Draft. He might just need those picks, though, as prior to the Entry Draft will come an Expansion Draft to stock the league’s new entries in New York and Rochester (which will move its current lineup to Halifax for next season).

“Our objective is to win every year but also be conscious of next year and beyond,” offered Keenan. “We’re in a good place with those three picks in our bank and we also still have a young and talented roster. I think we’d prefer to keep those picks because it’s a pretty strong draft and we’re going to have some holes to fill.”

The story might have been a little different had the Rush not bounced back to their winning ways the past two weekends. They ended a slide with a road win in Vancouver and followed that up with a defence-first 9-7 victory over Colorado at SaskTel Centre last Friday.

Saskatchewan’s defence, the pillar of three NLL titles in four years, has undergone significant changes from last season, and the work in progress on getting everyone cohesive as one unit hasn’t been a simple undertaking. The Rush are typically at or near the top of the league in several defensive categories, but currently are eighth in the league with an average of 11.89 goals allowed per game. The team has given up 107 goals through nine games, the same number as the Roughnecks who have played 10 games.

But all signs are pointing upward for the Rush, which means downward in terms of goals against.

Netminder Evan Kirk had not just his best game of the season against Colorado, it was one of his strongest outings since becoming a member of the Rush. The defensive group in front of him answered the coach’s challenge as well. As a unit, they combined for 12 caused turnovers and 48 loose balls in the win over the Mammoth. On top of that, they added two goals – Chris Corbeil’s second-quarter tally that restored a two-goal lead and Brett Mydske’s empty-netter that iced the result – plus four assists.

Challenge accepted and responded to in kind.

“The veterans stepped up. The three veteran guys – Corbeil, Mydske and (Kyle) Rubisch – were absolute beasts and the younger guys followed,” said Keenan. “Travis Cornwall, Nick Finlay, Matt Hossack, were all much better. And to win, you’ve got to get some saves and Kirkie made a number of big saves especially during a stretch at the end when we needed a goal and couldn’t get one.

“We just continued to analyze things and noted that when we were giving up goals, it was three or four always with the same breakdown. We just told them to focus on that and fix it. If we get this part right, we’ll be better and that’s exactly what they did.”