So much has changed since the Rush and Knighthawks last met for the right to be crowned kings of the National Lacrosse League.
For starters, and perhaps most importantly, the Rush are now entrenched in their new home, wearing the familiar green of Saskatchewan and becoming one of the premier teams in the league. The Rush have been at or near the top of the NLL’s attendance chart since moving to Saskatoon and are certainly the model by which all future ‘small market’ teams will be compared.
While the 2012 championship finale between the Rush and Knighthawks was the first and only time the two teams have met in the NLL playoffs, their initial clash started a trend of titles for both franchises. The Knighthawks won that final and would go on to become the only three-peat champions in league history, winning again in 2013 and 2014.
A year later, the Rush would take over.
The Rush captured their first championship in 2015 and then did it again in 2016 – this time in their new Saskatchewan home. They would make it back to the final once more in 2017, but lost that series to the Georgia Swarm.
Now, the Rush and Knighthawks are back in the final against each other. The best-of-three series begins Saturday, May 26th in Saskatoon with Game 2 slate for June 2nd in Rochester. If a Game 3 is necessary, the teams will trek back to Saskatchewan on June 9th.
“It’s such a different team now,” said Rush GM/head coach Derek Keenan in comparing his 2012 and 2018 crews.
“We were really a strictly defensive team then. We were built around our defensive group – Kyle Rubisch, Chris Corbeil, Ryan Dilks, Jeff Cornwall, Brett Mydske – and that ‘D’ core is still here, but there’s nobody left from our offense.
“We’re a much different team now but they are, too. They won three championships then they kind of got old, and we were up and coming and won two. They’re much younger and much more athletic now and they were probably the hottest team down the stretch.”
Keenan, who is already the regular-season king of coaching wins in the NLL, moved into second place for coaching victories in the playoffs (15) following Saskatchewan’s defeat of Calgary in the West Division Final. He is now just three behind the legendary bench boss Les Bartley.
What led up to the Rush’s run in 2012 is quite remarkable as the off-season changes were monumental by NLL standards.
The Rush, who had picked up Rubisch and Dilks in a summer dispersal draft, made five trades from August through November in 2011:
*Veteran scorer Aaron Wilson was brought in from Minnesota along with a second-round pick in exchange for three picks, including a Rush first-rounder which would go on to become goalie Evan Kirk.
*In a stunner, all-star transition Brodie Merrill was sent to Philadelphia for a massive package that featured three first-round picks and players. After a variety of follow-up trades and maneuvering, the Rush turned the picks into Robert Church and Ben McIntosh.
*Current captain Chris Corbeil was landed from Buffalo for a pair of picks. The Bandits would use one of those picks to select Jeremy Thompson who would wind up getting traded to the Rush a year later for Wilson.
*A substantial package was sent to Rochester and in return the Rush acquired goalie Aaron Bold and Shawn Williams, who would lead the ’12 edition of the team in scoring. A year later, Williams was dealt to Minnesota for two picks, one of which would become Adrian Sorichetti. Six years down the road, Bold and picks were sent to New England for Kirk.
*Two more draft picks come the Rush’s way in exchange for defenseman Bill Greer, Zack’s older brother who is now an assistant coach of the expansion San Diego Seals.
In February, Keenan made two more shrewd moves just three days apart:
*Two draft picks went to Buffalo and coming back the other way to the Rush was Jeff Cornwall.
*The Rush and Washington Stealth swapped of couple of players with the Rush also acquiring a first-round pick which would end up being the No. 1 overall selection in the 2012 draft. On draft day, the Rush brass walked to the microphone and wasted no time in choosing Mark Matthews.
But Matthews, same-year first-rounder Curtis Knight, Church and McIntosh were not in the picture for the 2012 season. Instead, the offense was a group that had to be opportunistic because it lacked an abundance of talent. The Rush barely made the playoffs with a lackluster 6-10 record and they were forced to face the front-running Calgary Roughnecks in the division semifinal.
For the second time in franchise history, though, the Rush eliminated the Roughnecks in the semifinal as Ryan Ward notched 11 points in a stunning 19-11 victory. A week later, the Rush’s suddenly surging offense roared to life again as they thumped the Minnesota Swarm 15-3 in the West Division Final.
Shockingly, the lowest-seeded team in the playoffs had made its way to the Champion’s Cup Final. The Cinderella story even seemed to be coming true as the Rush led the Knighthawks 5-1 at halftime, but the K-Hawks rallied on their home turf to take the game 9-6 and claim their second championship overall along with their first of three straight.
“It was definitely a roller coaster of a season,” said Dilks, who has gone on to become one of the elite defenders in the league. “I know the guys that are on our team now still remember the season especially that championship game.
“We were a young team that didn’t really have an identity yet. We snuck into playoffs because we got hot at the right time. I think our inexperience really showed in that game as we blew the 5-1 lead. It still makes me cringe to this day, but I think that game taught us a lot and shaped our team to who it is today.”
Today, they are a two-time league champion on the verge of winning a third, perhaps just a bit making up for the one that got away.