The Saskatchewan Rush were built on defense, and ultimately, built into a champion.
For the last handful of seasons, the Rush have been able to boast about possessing the best defensive unit the National Lacrosse League. The group is headlined by four-time reigning NLL Defensive Player of the Year Kyle Rubisch, but it is the entire collection that makes them so daunting to overcome. What awaits them in the NLL Champion’s Cup Final is daunting in its own right.
The Rush face the Buffalo Bandits in the best-of-three league championship series which begins this Saturday night in Buffalo. If the Rush can keep a leash on Bandits scoring whiz Dhane Smith then they’ll deserve all the wings you can find in Buffalo.
Smith was simply amazing this season, setting a new record with 137 points including a whopping 72 goals. He’s off to an equally eye-popping start to the playoffs with nine goals and 16 points in just two games. The hulking 6-foot-3, 195-pounder is a load to contend with but the Rush have the right personnel to tame the beast.
“Dhane Smith is a special player. We must recognize where he is at all times he’s on the floor,” said Rush defenceman Brett Mydske, who called the Saskatchewan defensive corps a “confident group right now.”
“He’s the league-leading goal scorer but he’s also the quarterback of that offence. He has had a record-breaking year. We need to get out on him and not give him time and space to shoot or pass if we want to limit his production.”
The Rush didn’t do such a great job in holding back Smith when the two teams met in their only regular-season game back in February. Smith notched eight points (4 goals, 4 assists) and helped push his team to a 19-18 overtime victory in Saskatoon – a game that was simply a disaster for the defenses. The two teams’ star netminders – Saskatchewan’s Aaron Bold and Buffalo’s Anthony Cosmo – were both given the hook that night as well.
“It was a very uncharacteristic game defensively for us at a time in the year we were having trouble finding consistency,” noted Rush defenseman Ryan Dilks, who stepped into the spotlight this season as the league-leader in forced turnovers.
“Since then I think we’ve realized how hard we have to work every game or even every shift to be successful.”
A lesson was learned and the Rush moved on from that game by winning their next six in a row. Saskatchewan would later sweep a weekend home-and-home series from Colorado to clinch first in the West Division, and then roll through the Calgary Roughnecks in the West Final.
Throughout the year, they’ve clamped down on several of the NLL’s top shooters including the weekend series when the Rush swept Colorado to claim first in the West as the defense held the Mammoth’s dangerous duo of Adam Jones and Callum Crawford to just three goals. In the West Final, the Rush put the grip on Roughnecks scoring whiz Curtis Dickson, holding him to just a single goal in Game 2.
Saskatchewan will certainly have to rein in Smith and do their best to limit his supporting cast led by two former Rush – Ryan Benesch (10 assists, 16 points in the playoffs) and Alexander-Kedoh Hill (eight goals in the playoffs). From the other perspective, the Bandits will have to keep a close eye on the Rush’s Mark Matthews, the most valuable player from last season’s Champion’s Cup, and his cast of cohorts who can give an opposing netminders sunburn from lighting the goal lamp.
The Rush have the deepest offensive attack of any team in the NLL, anchored by Matthews who had his second straight 40-plus goal, 100-plus point campaign in 2016. Ben McIntosh, the 2015 NLL Rookie of the Year, and Zack Greer, who had his second consecutive 40-goal season, both notched four-goal games during the West Final, and Robert Church led the NLL in power-play goals during the regular season. There’s danger waiting around every corner for the Bandits defense and the Rush hope to capitalize on that vast scoring arsenal.
“Our offense will definitely need to be executing well,” said McIntosh. “Buffalo’s team can do it all. They have great goaltending, great defense, and great offence, so these games are going to be a battle for 60 minutes.”
Goals on the Go: The transition part of the game is probably the most exciting for the fans and the most heart attack-inducing for the coaches. Saskatchewan excels at creating offensive out of its defense with the likes of Chris Corbeil, Nik Bilic, Adrian Sorichetti, and Jeff Cornwall. But Buffalo stampeded on the Rush with their own transition when they met in February, scoring eight of their 19 goals including the OT winner in transition. The Rush are well aware that they’ll need to be better at this key aspect in the Cup Final.
“They are very dangerous in all areas of the floor. We’ll need to be smart in the transition game, but also don’t want to get away from what makes us successful,” said Rush gunslinger Zack Greer. “We need to make good decisions and do our best to slow them down.”
Speed Thrills: ILIndoor.com named Saskatchewan’s Jeff Cornwall its second star of the week for the Division Finals after he racked up one assist, six loose balls, and three forced turnovers in Game 2 against Calgary.
By SaskRush.com. Photo by Micheline Veluvolu.