The Calgary Roughnecks host the Edmonton Rush for Game One of the West Division Finals at Scotiabank Saddledome on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET. Watch the Battle of Alberta live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network.
Derek Keenan, the Edmonton Rush’s GM/head coach, has said all year that in a tight nine-team league where parity is ever-evident, it’s virtually impossible to keep anything under wraps.
That’s only become more magnified in the second round of the NLL Champion’s Cup playoffs. There’s only four teams left, and fittingly the West Division Finals come down to two teams that know each other very well.
For the third time in franchise history, the Rush will meet the Roughnecks in the playoffs, and the Rush have two wins in West Semifinal clashes coming in 2010 and 2012. This time, however, it’s the West Finals, and a two-game series that kick off in Calgary on Saturday night.
Although the Roughnecks won the fourth and final meeting of the regular season with an overtime verdict just three weeks ago, the Rush dominated their way to three victories over the Roughnecks this earlier season, including two on the Saddledome turf. In each win, the Rush scored 15 goals and those verdicts paced Edmonton to a league-best 16-2 regular-season record.
But now this is the playoffs and the winner of the two-game series earns their shot at latching onto the Champion’s Cup.
“The stakes are higher now and our guys are ready,” said Keenan. “We had an opportunity to watch (the Roughnecks) live last week and see how the intensity level and everything on the floor increased. The speed, the intensity, everything was ramped up and it’s going to be the same this weekend.”
Rush owner Bruce Urban footed the bill for his troops to practice in Calgary last weekend and the entire team then watched the Roughnecks stave off elimination in a one-game Semifinal, pulling off a 16-15 close shave against the Colorado Mammoth.
“It was great to get together and experience what the atmosphere is going to be like there and now we all know what to expect,” said Rush defenceman Kyle Rubisch. “We know what they’re capable of playing them four times this season. They have a really explosive offense and we know they can dictate a game with their athletic defense.”
Calgary’s offense managed just 17 more goals than Edmonton during the regular season but the Roughnecks boast one of the most dangerous scoring units in NLL history with the likes of Shawn Evans, Curtis Dickson, Dane Dobbie and Jeff Shattler. That foursome helped Calgary lead the NLL with 237 goals, but the Rush will counter with the league’s stingiest defense, one that surrendered only 157 goals in 18 games.
The Edmonton group is highlighted by Rubisch, the two-time defending NLL Top Defensive Player, top scoring rearguard Chris Corbeil, and goaltender Aaron Bold, who lead the league in wins and goals-against average.
With so much equality and so many checks and balance on both sides of the ball, there’s going to be little left that separates these teams after two head-on collisions.
“We need to be disciplined in all areas of the game – our defensive scheme, in transition, and on offense, and we have to stay out of the penalty box,” said Keenan. “If we can execute what we do well and counter what Calgary does well then we’ll have a good opportunity. But if you waver from that and lose your composure, they’re so good at jumping on you quickly and getting you in trouble.”
The rivalry is heated but cooler heads will have the better shot at prevailing.
“Discipline is going to be a huge factor, especially on the road,” added Rubisch. “You’re going to have to check your emotions because putting Calgary on the power play is dangerous because they have so many weapons to hurt you.
“You’re going to have to know when to make your push and when to hold back on certain things.”
The Roughnecks are coming off one of their most exciting games and possibly their best performance of the season, after defeating the Colorado Mammoth 16-15 in overtime last weekend, punching their ticket to the West Division Finals.
“We didn’t design it that way but sometimes games in the NLL go that way,” said Roughnecks head coach Curt Malawsky. “They’re a real tight defensive battle or big time shootouts, so from an offensive perspective we can play in those shootout games and I honestly believe we can play in those low scoring defensive games as well. You’re playing with fire going to overtime but kudos to the Colorado Mammoth, they played a great game.”
The back-and-forth game saw the ball hitting twine 31 times, 19 of which were scored in the first two quarters alone, making it the most for the first half in an NLL postseason game since 2006.
“We found a way late in the fourth quarter and it was almost a tale of two games with 10-9 at half, and then only one goal each in the fourth quarter, so it was a game within a game in various situations,” said Malawsky.
‘Necks captain Andrew McBride, who had one assist in the game, said his team was prepared for the overtime situation.
“I thought we were ready to go in overtime,” he said. “From the coaches, to the leadership group, to the players on our team, we took a look around and said, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve worked for all year, we’re confident, we’ve put the time in to be in this situation, let’s go get the job done.’ I think that’s a testament to the tight games we’ve been in all year and not a better feeling to see that ball go in front of almost 13,000 fans, we’re excited to move on to the next challenge.”
The hard work doesn’t stop there, only one week after the big victory last weekend, the league’s number one team, the Edmonton Rush, is coming to the Roughhouse for another edition of the ‘Battle of Alberta’.
“Edmonton’s had a phenomenal season,” said Malawsky. “Outside of the three losses from Edmonton, we’ve only lost three other games to give us our six losses, so I think it’s going to be a great series for the fans. The boys are going to be fired up and there’s not a lot of love lost between the two teams.”
Over the course of the season, the Rush have put a beat down on the Roughnecks winning three out of the four games played, and outscoring the ‘Necks 58-40. But coach Malawsky and the rest of Roughnecks are no strangers to the capabilities of their province rivals.
“They’ve played us very tough this year, they’ve had our number,” said Malawsky. “Our guys have been coming in with a lot of confidence lately…we’re looking forward to going out to battle against them and there’s not a lot of people picking us, but I know there’s 22 guys in that room that believe we can be successful. We’re going to go out there and put everything we got forward and battle them tough.”
The rivalry has taken a turn this season as the Roughnecks are not used to being on the losing side of things when playing the Rush. The Riggers were able to steal one win against the Rush this season on April 19 in Edmonton when they won in overtime, 14-13.
Malawsky thinks that both these two teams deserve it more than anyone to be in the position they’re in.
“It’s great for the league, it’s great for the province,” he said. “I honestly believe we were the two best teams in the West Division. It’s no disrespect to the Mammoth, but the two best teams in that division are playing each other for the western championship, and I don’t think it should be any other way.”
McBride couldn’t agree more with his head coach saying he loves the way this rivalry has come to fruition.
“A great time for the province of Alberta and the two cities,” he said. “I think it shows a lot to the organizations from the Rush and the Roughnecks who have put the pieces in place to have successful franchises. Like coach said, I think we’re the two top teams in the West… we think in the playoffs, we can rise to the challenge. We’ve got a lot of guys that have been in positions who have won before, and we’re going to have to rely on that experience to get the job done.”
A big blow to the Roughnecks lineup might see Geoff Snider on the sidelines for this series as he left after the third quarter against the Mammoth with a lower body injury. Malawsky was asked about Snider’s status and the coach says he is staying hopeful.
“Geoff has been rehabbing all week,” he said. “He’s been in with our team doctors and our physiotherapists and has been fitted for a brace, so we’re very optimistic for Saturday.”
One thing is certain, The ‘Battle of Alberta’ will be full steam ahead as these two high caliber teams collide for a two game series, deciding who will move on to the NLL Champion’s Cup Finals.
“The ‘Dome is going to be rocking,” said McBride. “We’re really proud we can have that first home game and I think you’re going to see some exciting games that our really going to showcase both the team’s top-end talent. Players on both teams are hungry for this, it’s one these things when you play teams as much as you do, you get a little extra hate for them.”