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Rush and Roughnecks eye Division position in 'Battle of Alberta' finale

04/19/2013, 12:30pm MDT

Edmonton aiming for NLL regular season title, Calgary can clinch West with a win

For the Edmonton Rush (9-6), Saturday's game against the visiting Calgary Roughnecks (8-7) at Rexall Place, live on Sportsnet One and on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network at 9 p.m. ET, is much bigger than the standard-issue clash in the “Battle of Alberta” between the provincial rivals.

The Rush picked up a critical win last Sunday afternoon, knocking off the Rochester Knighthawks at home by a score of 14-10. The win moved the Rush into first place in the West Division, one game up on Calgary and Washington, and two games ahead of Minnesota. It was a crucial win for the Rush, who now have the chance to clinch top spot in the West Division and the No. 1 overall seed with home-turf advantage throughout the NLL playoffs with a victory over the Roughnecks.

“It was not the best of starts to the game but we rebounded and managed to get a big win,” said Rush general manager and head coach Derek Keenan. “We played pretty hard, with pretty good intensity, and played with poise so it was a good win.”

And now the Rush want an even bigger win. They’ve battled through a number of roadblocks already this season – finally beating Calgary in a regular-season game to end a 12-game, regular-season slump against their rivals, earning their first win in Toronto, and, by beating Rochester, getting a long-awaited second home-floor victory of the year.

It’s coming down to the wire for playoff positioning, and it’s making for much excitement around the league’s final regular-season weekend.

“We could finish with the best record in the league or we could finish third in the division. There’s no predicting who’s going to beat who from week to week,” said Keenan about  the league-wide parity, which is sure to carry-over into what will be some tightly-fought playoff matchups.

“What we know for sure is if you don’t show up to play, you’re not going to get a win,” Keenan added. “You have to play hard or you have no chance at all. Sometimes it comes down to special teams and goaltending but it’s really anybody’s to win.”

Those sentiments tie in neatly to the key clash against the Roughnecks, a team which has owned the Rush in regular-season play, but has fallen twice to Edmonton in the West Division Semifinals (2010 and 2012).

Edmonton’s Aaron Bold and Calgary’s Mike Poulin are tied for second amongst NLL goaltenders with eight wins apiece. Calgary’s boasts the league’s best offense (210 goals) and the top power play (65% efficiency). The Rush can counter-punch that with the second-best defense in the league (158 goals allowed) and an ability to hold onto leads (9-0 when leading after third quarters, and 8-2 when leading at halftime).

“We prefer to play a 5-on-5, up-and-down type of game, but you never know what might happen,” Keenan said. “Calgary has great special teams, especially the power play, so we want to be disciplined and stay out of the box.”

All in all, despite the NLL playoffs and the march to the Champion’s Cup still officially being a week away, Saturday’s tilt has all the feel of a playoff game.

“Calgary has had the best of us in regular-season play the last few, but we are hungry to show them that the times are a-changing in the Battle of Alberta,” said Rush forward Ryan Ward. “Saturday’s game will be a playoff type game as both teams want to have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.”

“[Edmonton’s] offense is so dynamic so we are just looking to neutralize them,” said Roughnecks head coach Curt Malawsky. “I don’t think we can completely stop them but we will hopefully slow them down a little bit there and hopefully we can rely on [goaltender Mike Poulin] late for some big [saves] if we need to.”

While Edmonton took care of business against Rochester this past weekend, the Roughnecks are coming off  a tightly-contested 15-14 home loss to the Knighthawks last Saturday.

“I thought our guys battled right to the end and sometimes in the game of lacrosse, one shot wins,” Malawsky said. “Our compete level was phenomenal, there was playoff intensity in that game which is great going forward. Despite [the loss], we were very happy with our team’s effort. We have been getting better every week and we are excited to go up to Edmonton. It’s going to be a big challenge and we can’t wait for Saturday.”

Calgary’s last meeting with Edmonton, an 18-13 loss that snapped their 12-game regular season winning streak against the Rush, might have been their worst performance of the season but they are looking to rebound this weekend and gain momentum heading into the postseason.

“Everybody knows that this championship is up for grabs,” said Roughnecks transition player Geoff Snider. “I don’t think that there is one group that is standing out more than the rest. For us, it’s about growing as a group and becoming a better team every quarter, every half, every game, and we are looking to do that against a very talented, athletic,  Edmonton team that’s had a lot of success in this season.

“You have to have a short memory in this league and we are going to go out there and worry about us and again compete at a level that we expect moving into the playoffs.”

With momentum moving forward into the playoffs, the Roughnecks hope to continue to draw strength from team leaders such as Shawn Evans, who currently leads the NLL with 102 points (31+71) and is closing in on the league’s scoring title.

“He has been our floor general, a lot of our offense goes through [Evans] and that’s no surprise to anybody else out in the league,” Malawsky said. “He just makes everybody around him better and that’s a big part about him – when our team’s shoulders are sagging a little – he goes out there and he is a fire cracker he gets us going so that compete level that emotional level and just that ability to make everybody around him better is special.”

There are other aspects that the Roughnecks have developed throughout the season that they will draw on for this weekend’s game and into the playoffs, specifically their top-ranked power play unit.

“We are patient with the ball and we have a systematic setup on our power play and the guys follow that very well,” Malawsky said. “They’re very disciplined and dedicated to it and we try to get everybody on the power play and get everybody involved. We don’t just roll with the same five guys over and over again. And if it’s not working one way, we get another guy in. It’s been a very collective effort up front, but at the end of the day, it’s a testament to our players and their creativity.”

Edmonton has clinched a playoff berth and can secure the NLL regular season title with a win over Calgary. The Rush will clinch a first-round home playoff game with a Washington loss to Philadelphia.

Calgary has clinched a playoff berth and can secure the West Division regular season title with a win over Edmonton. The Roughnecks will clinch a first-round home playoff game with a Minnesota win over Colorado AND a Washington loss to Philadelphia.

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