CALGARY, AB — It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The Calgary Roughnecks entered the NLL West Division two-game series final against the powerhouse Edmonton Rush on Saturday as the clear-cut underdogs and were pegged by most to be heading up North with their tail between their legs, down in the series and inevitably facing elimination.
But they had different plans.
“Apparently, we’ve been responding pretty good under the pressure lately,” Riggers head coach Curt Malawsky said. “The guys just keep believing. This league is so tight. It’s such a fine line between winning and losing.
“Our guys just seem to stick to the process. It’s a testament to them. They just refuse to lose. It’s the old adage — you never lose until you give up, and this group definitely doesn’t give up.
“It’s far from over, but we’re happy to be up 1-0.”
Calgary, it seems, has slowly but surely molded themselves into a team manufactured for the post-season.
They’ve experienced plenty of adversity during the regular season — slow starts, giving up leads, late comebacks — all part of a process that’s starting to pay off at the right time, which was apparent in their emotional overtime Game 1 victory over the Rush on Saturday.
“I think we’ve built a team all year to come in and rise up in playoffs,” captain Andrew McBride said. “It was going to be another close game. We talked all week that it’s going to come down to the final possession — overtime is not how we always want to draw it up — but an exciting game nonetheless.”
Malawsky also pointed out the Roughnecks are peaking at the right time.
“We are a different team and that’s what the regular season is for,” Malawsky said. “You build and you build and you build — you go through adverse situations. You could go back for a couple of hours and explain why we’re in the position we’re in now, it’s just the regular season and the adversity that we went through and those tight games.
“The guys, they’ve got alligator blood — nothing fazes them. You can see the composure in these guys — what’s next, what’s next — and that’s a testament to the athletes.”
The tide seems to have turned slightly in the Battle of Alberta.
The Rush, who enjoyed a record-setting season at 16-2, have now lost three of their last five contests — including two straight to their provincial rivals.
“We haven’t taken anything for granted, we haven’t won anything yet,” McBride said. “We’ve got to really come back and focus. It’s a nice position to be in but we have to travel to a hostile environment where their crowd is going to be fired up for their first ever playoff game.
“We need to just take the lessons, we’re going to watch film and be prepared — our coaches prepare us every week — we’ll watch and regroup and come ready to play.”
New to the NLL playoff format this season is a two-game series to determine the outcome of the Division Finals and Champion’s Cup. If the teams split the series, a 10-minute ‘mini’ game will be played immediately following Game 2 to decide the series winner.
Roughnecks forward Curtis Dickson would undoubtedly prefer to get the job done in the second match and stay away from extra-curriculars.
“I don’t think either way we’re going into it looking at it any differently,” said Dickson, who tallied four goals in Game 1, including a clutch penalty shot marker to tie the game with just 21.6 seconds left. “Obviously we’re going to go into Edmonton looking for a win whether we lost or won [Game 1]. It’s big. We’ve got a chance to close it out without having to play that mini game.
“We’re coming off a win in their barn in overtime and we beat them [on Saturday] so we’ve got a lot of confidence going into [Game 2] so hopefully we’ll pull it out and avoid that mini game.”
There’s no love lost between the Roughnecks and Rush and after Saturday, things will only escalate for Game 2. Malawsky is predicting another rough outing in Edmonton.
“It’s going to be a physical game, it’s a playoff game,” Malawsky said. “You can’t let those guys get to the net. I think they were pretty nasty too and I think you look all the way around it was just a nasty game — a playoff battle — nobody was getting anything for free, they weren’t getting an inch. They pushed back and we pushed back.
“The last shot was a big one. I expect the same thing in Edmonton, this thing is far from over.”