All championships mean the world to everyone involved.
But maybe, just maybe, the Saskatchewan Rush’s 2016 NLL title is the most meaningful of their three moments of glory considering just how well they played in a two-game sweep of the Buffalo Bandits with both games decided by slim margins and heaped heart-pounding moments. For the Rush, it was the second league championship in a row, though it was their first wearing the colors of the province and city they represented and a fan base that had gone absolutely bonkers for their new team.
This Saturday, the Rush and Bandits renew acquaintances with both teams occupying top spot in their respective divisions and looking at each other with visions of a potential NLL Cup series in the distance.
“I think Buffalo has definitely established itself as the team to beat,” said Rush sniper Robert Church.
“We are really looking forward to playing them and I think it’ll be a great game. It feels like we are starting to play like ourselves again and that makes us very difficult to play.”
Far from being a must win, but it would certainly be a statement victory if the Rush are able to take two points off the Bandits. It would help the Rush’s effort to gain some separation from both San Diego and Calgary, and just as important, send a message that the reigning league champs aren’t going to be knocked off their throne without a fight.
The Rush do know, though, that it might just be their toughest task of the regular season as Buffalo was the first team this year to reach double-digits in victories and lead the NLL is a slew of statistical categories, including the leading scorer (Dhane Smith) and top goaltender (Matt Vinc).
“We got an opportunity to watch them last week and get a good feel for what they do,” said Rush GM/head coach Derek Keenan. “We’ve got a good amount of time to prepare. They’re going to be a handful, but we’ll be ready.
“Smith is fast with quick feet and he’s strong so we’re going to have to play our (defensive) system well against him and Shawn Evans.”
The defence know they’re going to have their hands full with Smith, Evans, former Rush Corey Small, and the rest of the Bandit shooters, but they also know the game plan to limit their scoring chances.
“We keep doing what we’ve been doing and stick to our game plan,” said Rush transition Jordi Jones-Smith.
The Rush are starting to look more and more like a team that is preparing for the stretch drive of the regular season and a long playoff run. They have figured out a lot, cut out a good number of the repetitive mistakes, and received some stellar netminding from Evan Kirk. They’ll need everyone at their best to prevent the Bandits from stealing their home-turf thunder.
“We’re making fewer errors defensively and we’ve fixed a lot of things with our transition,” noted Keenan. “We’re getting good, balanced scoring. Jeff Shattler has taken his game to another level and really provided a spark for us. Church is back from his injury and close to 100%. No concerns about him, he’ll be there for us. Calgary played a shut-down game against Mark Matthews and still put up 15 because our other guys on offence are very capable of getting the job done.”
Buffalo saw its six-game winning streak come to an end on the tail end of a doubleheader last weekend. After winning an overtime tilt in Philadelphia, the Bandits returned home the next night and lost to Georgia.