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Stories/Op-Ed

Rush Defense Is Ready To Redeem Themselves

The Saskatchewan Rush were 15 minutes away from beginning this NLL season with a perfect 2-0 record. They would have successfully completed one of the franchises’ most impressive two-game stretches to start a season in their history; then, for eight minutes, everything unraveled.

During the Rush’s Week 3 matchup on the road at Pechanga Arena against the San Diego Seals, the visitor’s smothering defense held the mighty Seals offense to four goals through three quarters. They were leading 10-4. However, as the fourth quarter was about to begin, you could feel the momentum shifting.

The Seals had scored the last goal of the third quarter, and the Rush’s captain Ryan Dilks was hobbling back to the locker room as the fourth began. The Seals scored another goal to keep their streak going, and then another, and another. Suddenly it seemed that no matter what the Rush did, there was no stopping the ferocious Seals attack. It was not even five minutes into the fourth quarter, and the Seals had battled all the way back to a 10-9 scoreline. And, believe it or not, matters were about to get much worse for the Rush.

Shortly after that latest Seals goal, Kyle Rubisch went down with an injury that pushed him to the sidelines. Without Dilks or Rubisch, the Rush were now missing two of their most effective and steadfast defensive veteran studs from the lineup, the Rush continued to get pummeled. A few more minutes passed, and so did a few more goals. Whether it was Alex Buque or Eric Penney in the net, everything continued to hit the twine for the Seals. Less than three minutes following Rubisch’s departure, the Rush were now down 12-10, despite leading 10-4 only seven minutes prior.

The Rush did steady themselves for the final five minutes of the game. They fought back to a 12-12 ballgame to force overtime, including scoring the tying goal with under a minute left in regulation. In the end, however, it wasn’t enough. The Seals were triumphant in the extra frame, and they captured a stunning ‘W’ to keep their own record perfect at 2-0. On the other hand, the Rush were gifted an early lump of coal in the form of a loss to tarnish their early season perfection.

So, what happened to the Rush for half a quarter? How could an undeniably capable and regimented team fall apart in such tragic fashion? Call whatever you’d like: a temporary lack of organization, being rattled by critical injuries, or a momentary inability to stop the league’s potentially most potent offense. It could be attributed to a multitude of things. But, if there’s one thing that Rush Head Coach Jimmy Quinlan knows for sure, it’s that when you play a full 60 minutes, these types of moments and outcomes rarely occur.

“That’s always the key to this sport: making sure you’re good for 60 [minutes],” Quinlan said. “Not 50 minutes, not 55 minutes, and that’s really what we did in Week 1 against Colorado because we were suffocating for 60 minutes.”

While resting up from his injury, Rubisch added that these moments can be used for learning if they are ever faced with a similar scenario in the future.

“I think you flip those moments and make them learning situations,” Rubisch said. “Every team faces adversity in this league at some point, and we know that every season is not going to be an easy, perfect season – there’s going to be ups and downs. It comes down to how you react to those ups and downs.”

While the loss was shocking and upsetting, the Rush have a mature enough group of men to understand that the next game is the one that matters the most. They also know that the last result is only sometimes the best indicator of what a team can achieve. Regardless of the eight goals allowed in the final 15 minutes, the team faired quite well for most of the contest. The way they were in those moments reflects more of who this year’s Rush defense and this Rush team will be like.

Heading into their Week 5 match versus Panther City Lacrosse Club, the Rush rank second in the league in caused turnovers per game (12), rank tied for third in goals against average (9.5), and are ranked tied for sixth in blocked shots per game (5.5).

Rubisch credits much of the team’s early success for most of the first eight quarters to the fact that the veterans and newcomers have found the best ways to incorporate everyone’s best traits. It was clear to Rubisch as early as training camp that this group of guys would work well with each other.

“I think it’s just been a good mix of the guys that have been here a while and a young crop of talent that can step in and play right away,” Rubisch said. “I think that it’s given the older guys that have been around a little bit of a boost to have some new faces in there and to have some young guys that can bring some more energy.”

“From early on [this season], you could already see that everyone is very capable, and they know that they deserve to be there – they don’t miss a beat. Yeah, they’re younger and have less experience, but you can see from the way they play, by the way they prepare, that they’re all elite players that give you a lot of confidence when you play with them.”

When you look at the production coming from guys like Holden Garlent, Bobby Kidd III, and Jake Boudreau, who all have less than two full seasons of playing experience and are all 26 years old or younger, you can see that potential in these younger players, and more to that point, how they are already playing beyond their years.

Coach Quinlan has also been particularly impressed with how the young core of defensemen has worked towards thriving alongside legendary NLL veterans such as Rubisch, Dilks, and Matt Beers.

“I think that that comes from being around guys like Beers, Rubes [Rubisch], and Dilks,” Quinlan said. “Just the way they conduct themselves and the way they’re composed under fire and stick to the plan – for our young guys, it’s crucial. I like how they come in and say how helpful [the veterans] are. There are no real egos on the back end, and the old guys are really willing to teach the young guys.”

It helps the defense build their comradery and confidence when they know they have someone reliable backing them up in the net. For the most part, Buque has been their go-to guy. Buque is one of five goaltenders in the NLL who has played 100+ minutes and still has a goals against average of under 10.

But the coaching staff isn’t just excited that Buque is performing so well early on this year. They have felt very confident in both goaltenders this year because there have been open lines of communication between everyone.

“When Alex [Buque] came into the team, and same with the penny man, Eric Penney, we had talks with them as a coaching staff,” Quinlan said. “We asked them what type of shots they like to face and how they like to play their game – what suits their style. Then, we tried to tailor a few things differently to help them and then benefit us.”

It’s too early into this season to predict where the Rush will end up in the standings by the end of the year, but whether you’re judging by the eye test or looking at the analytics, the 2022-23 Rush clearly mean business. Kidd III understands how much potential this group has, even as one of the younger players on the roster.

The result in their second game of the year was different than the result of the first game, but the players have noticed when they are playing at the level they want to be playing at. Particularly after an upsetting loss, they will attempt to avoid similar missteps along the way. In an ultra-competitive league, every game matters when it comes to playoff standings

“The way we played in our first night with the defense buzzing like that – even going back to the last four games last year – it shows how much good defense can help the offense and can help the team,” Kidd III said. “You can see how much that tires out the other team, so if we can keep doing that this year, that would be great.”

Make sure to watch the lone game this evening as Rush take on Panther City tonight at 9pm ET on ESPN+ and TSN’s digital properties, TSN.ca and the TSN App.

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