By Scott Zerr | Staff Writer
It’s still relatively early in the overall grand scheme of the 2017 National Lacrosse League schedule as the Saskatchewan Rush are set to play their eighth game of the season.
But this late-February to end-of-March run of six straight matchups against rivals from the NLL’s West Division could very well go a long way in determining which three of the four teams earn a slot in the playoffs. The Rush are certainly getting off on the right foot with last weekend’s hard-fought victory over the Colorado Mammoth. The goal now is not letting up on the gas which really shouldn’t be an issue since next up on the six-pack slate are the arch-rival Calgary Roughnecks.
The Rush will look to earn a seventh straight regular-season victory over Calgary – a current streak that extends to nine by including the last two playoff series between the teams.
“Anytime you can start to create space between yourself and the other teams in the division, it’s huge,” said Saskatchewan defenceman Ryan Dilks.
“It’s a big divisional game and we never want to lose at home ever.”
The Rush have not lost at the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon since dropping a 19-18 overtime tilt to the Buffalo Bandits last February. Since then, the Rush have won nine in a row on their home turf, including Game 2 of last season’s West Final against Calgary.
Currently, the Rush have a 1½-game lead over Colorado for first in the West, and last weekend’s 8-7 verdict over the Mammoth have given them a leg-up in the head-to-head matchup with three more games to go. It will be a tall order for the Rush to get a clean sweep of this six-game run against West foes, but only two of the games are away from SaskTel Centre.
Finishing first in the West has helped pave the Rush’s way to back-to-back Champion’s Cup titles, and that’s where they want to be when the run for a third crown gets under way. First place gets you an automatic bye into the division final and allows you to steer clear of the dreaded one-and-done divisional semifinal – an all-or-nothing showdown that has spelled doom for Colorado two years in a row. Both times the Mammoth lost the semifinal at home against Calgary.
“It’s so important to finish first in the division because anything can happen in a one-game playoff and we like our chances a lot better in a three-game series,” said Rush forward Ben McIntosh.
“Every division game is big for us. They’re a good team but last time we played we got the better of them.
Following their 0-2 start to the season, the Rush have rattled off five wins in a row, including a 15-11 victory over the Roughnecks two weeks ago in Calgary. Meanwhile, the Roughnecks opened the year by splitting a pair of weekend series with Vancouver and Colorado, but since then have lost three straight – all at home under the Saddledome.
So as the Rush have started their ascent to the top of the division, the Roughnecks have scuffled to the bottom. Saskatchewan’s run of good fortune against Calgary has been anchored by the Rush playing an all-round focused game and not deviating from the task at hand.
“I think it’s about sticking to the plan and grinding away which has seemed to pay off for us,” said Rush GM/head coach Derek Keenan.
“Last game was pretty tight and then in the fourth quarter I think we got to them. It’s more just doing what we do well while staying disciplined and composed which is always a key. We have to mindful that we’re going to be facing a desperate team that’s going to come here and play extremely hard. We always have to be at our best against them and it’s not going to be an easy one.”