It’s situation critical for the Saskatchewan Rush at the halfway point of their NLL season.
“It’s a cliche but we’re looking at this as a must-win,” says Rush captain Chris Corbeil, as 2-6 Saskatchewan (-1.5; O/U 21.5) prepares to host the 6-2 Colorado Mammoth at SaskTel Centre on Saturday night in the Sports Interaction Game of the Week on TSN (8:30 p.m. ET).
“We can’t afford to lose this,” says Corbeil. “It would be really, really difficult to pull out of that hole.”
The Rush dropped a close one 12-10 to the Mammoth last weekend at the Loud House, Ball Arena, in Denver. And now Saskatchewan is in unfamiliar territory, facing the prospect of slipping out of the playoff race with another loss.
The Rush, NLL champions in 2015, ’16 and ’18, have not missed the playoffs since 2009 when the franchise was in Edmonton, and have not finished out of first place in the West since 2013. Heading into Saturday’s crucial matchup with Colorado, Saskatchewan has lost two straight, and is 1-4 in its last five games. Three of the Rush’s six losses this season have been by one goal.
Saskatchewan is 1-2 against the spread in its past three games, all against Western Conference opponents. The Rush were the favourite in those three games, including last weekend at Colorado. The Mammoth, meanwhile, are 3-1 against the spread in their past four games, all against Western teams as well.
“It’s probably the biggest game of the season for us, says veteran Saskatchewan forward Mark Matthews, who leads his squad with 38 points (13 goals, 25 assists). “Right now we’re on the outside looking in. If we get the win [Saturday] and we get on a roll during the back-half of the season, we can roll right into a playoff spot.”
The Rush’s recent woes can in part be traced to their rising goals-against and declining goals-for. This season, Saskatchewan is scoring 10.00 goals per game but giving up 10.75. During the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, the Rush were 11.1 goals for and 9.3 goals against (in 10 games). And during Saskatchewan’s last championship season in 2018, they were 14.1 goals for and 10.9 goals against.
“I think offensively we just aren’t scoring,” says Matthews, the 2018 NLL MVP and four-time First Team All-Pro. “We’re getting better as a group. It comes down to a few breaks here and there. Bounces go your way. Right now we’re not on the right side of those. It’s tough but hopefully [Saturday] we’ll be on other side of those.”
Captain Corbeil’s take on his team’s troubles: “It comes down to execution. We haven’t been playing that well. It’s tough. It’s been really tight. Against Halifax [in the Rush’s season opener, a 12-11 overtime loss] it felt like we won. The home opener versus Calgary [an 11-10 setback], nobody’s hitting panic button then. But those early ones mean a little bit more now.”
At Colorado last weekend, Saskacthewan was stymied by Mammoth goaltender Dillon Ward, who made 47 saves and at 6-foot-5 literally looms large in net.
“I think we played a pretty decent game,” says Matthews. “A few too many penalties and they scored some powerplay goals. We got 60 shots on net. Wardo stole game for them. He’s a great goalie, one of the best for a reason.
“Offensively we need to shoot a little bit better, get a little bit luckier. We hit four or five posts [last weekend]. We’ll bounce back, we’ll have the same plan, a few will drop for us and we’ll find our stride, and we’ll get on a bit of run here.”
The Rush defence is also planning to step up its play.
“It’s no secret that [Colorado’s leading scorer] Ryan Lee has been conduit to that team’s success. We got to stop him,” says Corbeil. “That team likes to go low to high, coming across top and letting it rip.”
Lee sits third in league scoring with 54 points (21 goals, 33 assists) in eight games played.
“It’s about limiting Lee’s chances for sure,” says Cobeil. “There are big bodies there clearing room for him, [Tyler] Digby, Zed [Williams]. The biggest thing we can do is stay out of the penalty box. It really stifled momentum for us, things got away.
“We played well enough to win, we just didn’t get the result. You got to quickly get over it, buckle up and attack this weekend the same way we approached last weekend and hope for a better result.
Corbeil underlines the importance of this Saturday’s game against the Mammoth: “We’ve played a tonne of divisional games but we haven’t lost a [three-game] season series yet, we haven’t suffered two losses,” he says.
Earlier this week, Saskatchewan brought in NLL veteran Eric Penney from Philadelphia to shore up their goaltending situation. Penney, who spent the majority of his five-year career in Vancouver, started in one game this season for the Wings, making 50 saves on 61 shots.
The Rush’s starting goalie this season, Adam Shute, has a 9.78 goals-against average and .770 save percentage. Heading into this season, Penney’s career goals-against average was 13.02 with a .762 save percentage and no playoff appearances but saw great improvements in the 2019-20 season with a .789 save percentage and 11.73 goals against average while setting a career high in minutes played.
Penney has a lot of familiarity with this Mammoth offense given his time with the Warriors. In one game during the 2019-20 season, Penney held the Mammoth offense to just five goals, saving 48 of 53 shots. This Mammoth team has gone through a renovation of sorts out the front door since then however.
Colorado, which has won three in a row on the road, isn’t overlooking Saturday either.
“We know how important this game is to both teams, and we’ll need to execute our game plan to be successful,” says the Mammoth’s Ward, the 2017 NLL Goaltender of the Year who this season sports a 9.58 goals-against average and .820 save percentage.
“We also have a pretty veteran group and have played these teams and players for many years,” says Ward. “Playing Sask last week will definitely give us a better idea of what to expect out of them. But on the flip side, they have that same advantage.
“Our coaches do a very good job of making sure we’re prepared heading into games. There’s no grey area in our game plans. Everyone knows exactly what’s expected, and are executing, and that gives me a great opportunity to play my game and have success.”
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