The first-ever ‘Battle of the Prairies’ kicked off the 2016 NLL season for the Calgary Roughnecks (0-1) as they played host to the defending champion Saskatchewan Rush (1-0) on Saturday night. It was the opening to the season that the Rush was looking for, as they triumphed over the Riggers with a 10-8 comeback win in front of 11,977 fans at Scotiabank Saddledome.
Less than two minutes into the game Roughnecks Defenseman Dan MacRae scored the first goal of the 2016 season. ‘Necks forward Dane Dobbie then got an opportunity to put one past Aaron Bold on a power play. The first quarter would end with the Riggers in the lead 2-0, a good start against the team that eliminated them from a Champion’s Cup run last year.
“There’s a lot of animosity there,” said Roughnecks head coach Curt Malawsky. “They knocked us out last year and our guys didn’t forget that. And we came out of the gates hard.”
Five rookies were on Calgary’s opening-day 20-player roster and the coaching staff was impressed with their quick start and energy.
“[The Rush] haven’t changed anything and we’ve made some changes,” Malawsky said. “There was lot that I liked about our game. I thought our compete was good, I thought our composure was great for a young team…they didn’t panic.”
Rush forward Ben McIntosh opened the scoring for the team. Defenseman Chris Corbeil then managed to tie the game up at 2 with a short-handed. The Rush then found themselves on a power play for five minutes as Roughnecks transition Curtis Manning took a major call for high sticking. Dane Dobbie still managed to put his second of the night past Bold. Wesley Berg kept the effort going by scoring his first-ever NLL goal. Followed by another goal from Curtis ‘Superman’ Dickson. Riggers lead the Rush 5-2 with Saskatchewan leading in shots, 29-28.
At the half, the Rush seemed to be the opposite of the high-powered championship team they were in 2015.
“I thought there was slow starts overall for our offense,” said Rush general manager and head coach Derek Keenan. “I mean we struggled a little bit, having two goals at halftime isn’t really characteristic of our team.”
The second half was when the game began turning around for the Rush. While they couldn’t put one on the board until almost 10 minutes into the 3rd, they found footing when Rush forward Zack Greer scored two goals in a row. A short-handed goal from Mark Matthews decreased the Riggers lead to just one goal, the third saw a huge change in the Rush’s gameplay.
“There were defensive stops at the start of the third quarter, and we finally made some plays,” Keenan said. “Transition-wise, we made some plays…and finally our goal scorers starting scoring a little bit too.
“Mark was sluggish in the first half, but got his legs going and started working a little bit harder, and Knight…Curtis is always going to give you that 100% effort, and, even if he’s not scoring, he does a lot of things for us that helps us win games.”
Rush forward Riley Loewen then tied up the game 6-6 with another great short-handed effort. That would conclude the third quarter.
“We finally got our offense going a little bit in the second half and made some plays and finally got a little bit of execution… It was pretty good,” Keenan said.
“When you can get a couple of grind plays on offense, and you get a couple goals like that, it sparks our offense,” Matthews said. “And when that happens, we get the ball going and we find the back of the net.”
While the Rush powered ahead in the second, Malawsky watched his team start falling apart.
“We had a tough go in the second half but the Rush are a good team, they put you in spots,” he said. “I think that cost us, I think we stopped moving our feet, but they have that championship resiliency, and we have that youthful resiliency. But we have to be better.”
The Roughnecks then made a quick come back with back-to-back goals from Dickson and Dobbie, but it wasn’t enough. Mark Matthews didn’t take long to find the back of the net again. Saskatchewan found the lead just seconds after, as Church got his second of the evening.
“We came out and were a little flat in the second half there, and they took advantage of it,” said Roughnecks forward Curtis Dickson. “A couple of mental lapses and a couple short-handed goals that were the difference… It’s just one of those things where we got to finish when we’re in tight. And get those opportunities because you know they won’t come around often with these guys.”
In the end, the Saskatchewan Rush would walk away with a 10-8 ‘W’ with a 48-45 favor in shots. An opening to the season the Roughnecks coaching staff was not happy with.
“To be honest with you, you don’t want to draw the champs right out of the gate,” Malawsky admitted. “I’d be lying if I said I wanted it, but you play who you play and they are who they are. When it’s all said and done, you have to measure yourself up against them. To me, it’s a results-based business and as great as we played…we still didn’t get the results.”
“It’s always tough when you play these guys, I thought they played really well and their defense was outstanding,” Keenan said. “But when you win a bit of an ugly one, sometimes you’re even happier than a perfect game.”
The Roughnecks will head to Buffalo to take on the Bandits next week, while the Rush have a bye week before hosting the Vancouver Stealth on January 15.
As for the two teams, they may now be in different provinces, but the same rivalry is still there.
“There’s no love lost there,” Matthews said. “It’s a battle every time.”
Three Stars of the Game as selected by the media:
1) Mark Matthews
2) Dane Dobbie
3) Aaron Bold
Story by Laura Bates (@RoughnecksBeat) for NLL.com. Photo by Candice Ward.