A seven-goal run, highlighted by Robert Church’s natural hat trick, was the surge in momentum the Saskatchewan Rush needed to win Game 1 of the NLL Cup championship series.
The Rush never let their opposition back into the game and dominated the rest of the way, cruising to a 16-9 victory over the Rochester Knighthawks, which gives them a critical lead in the best-of-three series.
Saskatchewan will go for the series sweep and their third league title in Game 2 next Saturday in Rochester.
“It’s definitely a game of momentum and we were able to maintain that momentum,” said Rush transition standout Jeff Cornwall, who scored his second goal of the game during the run.
The Rush, playing before a raucous crowd of more than 14,000 at SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon, actually trailed 4-3 at the start of the run as the Knighthawks jumped ahead on a second-quarter power-play goal from Cody Jamieson. Church knotted the game with a sensational shorthanded tally as he fought off a hold from one Rochester defender, darted past another and then rifled a sidearm shot past Knighthawks goalie Matt Vinc.
Shorthanded goals are often momentum-changers. This one was the epitome of that statement.
Just 1:34 later, Church peeled off a defender, latched onto a deft touch pass from Marty Dinsdale, and gunned home his second to give the Rush a 5-4 lead. Church completed the natural hat trick in just over three minutes when grabbled a loose ball in the slot, zoomed towards the Rochester net and zipped a shot by Vinc.
“He gave us a big lift. He just made big plays,” said Rush GM/head coach Derek Keenan of Church’s scoring blitz.
Saskatchewan’s 6-4 half-time lead was quickly bolstered as the Rush collected four goals in the opening 3:39 of the third quarter. After setting up Ben McIntosh to finish off a fast-break opportunity for his second goal of the game, Cornwall scored himself – his second of the night – as he scooted down the wing and then whipped a shot inside the far post. Just 30 seconds later, the Rush went ahead 9-4 as Ryan Keenan burned Rochester defender Brad Gillies with a twist and turn before going airborne to put a shot behind Vinc.
The seven-goal burst concluded 50 seconds later as the K-Hawks defense left Mark Matthews too much room on the wing and the NLL’s leading scorer sent a rocket into the net.
The Rush never let the Knighthawks back into the game as the visitors never got closer than four goals down.
In the fourth quarter, Church potted his fourth of the game to make it 13-8 before Saskatchewan’s young defenders got in on the scoring barrage. Matt Hossack and Mike Messenger scored 36 seconds apart to further enhance the Rush’s advantage, and Keenan put a final stamp on the scoring on the power play. Rochester defender Billy Dee Smith had been called for a rare triple minor as he went after Church during a loose ball scrum.
“It was a complete effort,” added the Rush bench boss. “But the job is not finished and we’re going to start focusing on that almost immediately. We’re going to have to be even better because they’re going to be desperate.”
The win was Saskatchewan’s first in three tries against the Knighthawks this season, and Rochester was the only team to beat the Rush twice during the year. Ryan Keenan, who opened the Rush’s fourth-quarter scoring with an absolute rocket under the crossbar, said the solution to lack of success against Rochester this season was an all-in showing from the entire team.
“It was a massive win. Everybody performed well and everybody contributed right to the end,” said Keenan. “The defense was our backbone and (goalie Evan) Kirk was excellent. It was great to have that kind of performance in front of our home fans.”
Dinsdale, who picked up four assists on the night, and Jeremy Thompson also scored for the Rush. Kirk made two outstanding saves in the first half and wound up having one of his best outings of the season finishing with 35 saves.
Eric Fannell, with a pair, led the Knighthawks scoring with Graeme Hossack, Austin Shanks, Joe Resetarits, Cory Vitarelli, Josh Currier, and Kyle Jackson adding a goal apiece. Vinc, who was briefly pulled after the Rush’s seven-goal run was peppered throughout the game and ended up totaling 48 saves.