The Edmonton Rush and Rochester Knighthawks will meet in the NLL Champion's Cup on Saturday.
By Andy Lefkowitz, Associate Editor for NLL.com
The Rush continued their unexpected playoff charge with a 15-3 rout of Minnesota on Saturday night in the West Divisional Final. They will go into the Champion’s Cup Final against the Rochester Knighthawks, who dispatched Toronto in the East final by a 17-13 margin for their first win in five playoff games at Air Canada Centre.
That sets up a match for all the marbles at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday night at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y., and broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
It also features no shortage of subplots. Consider the following:
• The Rush and Knighthawks didn’t meet during the 2012 season. In fact, they have met only three times with Edmonton winning twice.
• Keenan’s signature move in the offseason could have been the acquisition of forward Shawn Williams and goaltender Aaron Bold from the Knighthawks last October for a package including Alex Kedoh-Hill and Ryan Cousins.
• The 37-year-old Williams can wind up an incredible 15th NLL season with a championship. Williams still is Rochester’s all-time leader in assists (491) and second in points (800) and was a member of the Knighthawks’ 2007 championship club. This year, Williams joined the 1,000-point club while breaking and extending the NLL’s ironman record to 196 straight games.
• More on Bold later, but for Edmonton to even be in this position is nothing short of amazing. The Rush entered the postseason with the worst regular season record among the NLL’s eight playoff teams and scored a league-low 167 goals or 10.4 per game.
The second season has given the Rush renewed life. They’ve scored 34 goals in wins over top-seeded Calgary and Minnesota with Ryan Ward (18 points) and Corey Small and Aaron Wilson (13 points each) leading the NLL in playoff scoring.
On defense, Bold has shown that he is, indeed, championship-caliber material. After a 39-save performance in a 19-11 win over the Roughnecks on May 5, he denied 39 of 42 Minnesota shots on Saturday, and held the Swarm off the scoreboard for an astonishing 37 minutes, 10 seconds during one stretch.
“Regardless of the three goals-against, I was just really antsy,” Bold admitted to Gerry Moddejonge of the Edmonton Sun. “It’s been a great year for myself as well as the team … I put in some time, personally, for this game and it’s going to continue over to Rochester.”
If there is any lingering bitterness toward the Knighthawks, Bold didn’t say so.
“It’s kind of nice to meet your old team in the dance, I guess, or the show you can call it,” Bold said to Evan Daum of the Edmonton Journal. “I think it’s going to be one of those games. They’re not going to give up, we’re not going to give up, so it’s going to make for definitely a good game.”
While the Knighthawks will face a stiff challenge from a surging Edmonton squad, they certainly have momentum on their side after ending their hexes in Toronto and against the Rock. Rochester had been 0-4 in playoff contests at Air Canada Centre and had dropped eight straight overall in the head-to-head series.
“Right from the get-go, we wanted to come out with a really strong first five minutes and we did that and overall we played great all the way through from the goaltender on out,” the Knighthawks’ Cory Vitarelli told Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun.
The Knighthawks took control with a 4-0 run bridging the second and third quarters and started by Vitarelli, who finished with a team-leading four goals. Matt Vinc surrendered four late Toronto goals to make the score a lot closer, but still set a career playoff high with 51 saves on 64 shots.
“You have to take your hat off to Matty Vinc,” Rock captain Colin Doyle told Ganter. “When we did get our chances, he seemed to step up and make a save and when we did get one, they seemed to answer right back.”
Vinc has surrendered 26 goals on 114 shots so far in the postseason, but he’s 2-0 with a 9.50 goals-against average and .793 save percentage in three career games versus the Rush.
As for the Rock and the Swarm, the ends to their seasons were stunning. No team had been a repeat champion in the NLL since Toronto in 2002 and 2003 and it squandered a chance to reach a third straight Champion’s Cup final.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Rock goaltender Nick Rose told Daniel Girard of the Toronto Star. “Eventually we’ll get over this, but right now it stings.”
Acquired from Calgary just before the March trade deadline, Rose gives Toronto stability in goal moving into 2013 and beyond. He went 6-2 with the Rock following the deal.
A victory over higher-seeded Colorado in the opening round of the postseason pushed Minnesota’s winning streak and had the club perhaps thinking about a championship banner gracing the rafters of the Xcel Energy Center.
Instead, they’ll start planning for another run next year. A team that had 12 rookies gained valuable experience in 2012, something captain Andrew Suitor said will serve the club well in the future.
“Everybody gets better as the years go on with a lot more experience,” Suitor told Jace Frederick of NLL.com. “We’ve got a really good core coming back and four first-round draft picks, so there’s our positives.”
By this time next week, there will be a new champion and the 2012 season will be in the books.