Lacrosse

Rush enjoying perfect start to NLL season

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The Canadian Press
2/4/2014 4:02:34 PM
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Ontario and British Columbia are the traditional lacrosse hotbeds in Canada, but the best professional indoor team in the country right now calls Alberta home.

The undefeated Edmonton Rush improved to 5-0 over the weekend, the only National Lacrosse League team yet to taste defeat so far this season.

In fact, the Rush are the only Canadian club with a winning record as Toronto (2-3), Calgary (2-3) and Vancouver (2-5) all lag behind Edmonton.

"It's early still and you don't want to get too high or too excited but we're playing well," said Rush head coach and general manager Derek Keenan. "It's a process of maturity."

Edmonton's defence was been exceptional so far, led by Kyle Rubisch.

"He's a bulldog," Keenan said of the two-time reigning NLL defenceman of the year. "He takes away opponents' space, he picks off passes and he's a beast when the ball is on the turf. His gap closure is scary good. Guys think they have a step on him or an opportunity to get by him and he's in their face and they're on their butt.

"He's a shut-down guy. He's got great vision and good hands, too. He fits our system so well. He's a good team guy. We're lucky to have him."

Meanwhile, Chris Corbeil was named captain when Jimmy Quinlan moved behind the bench as an assistant coach this year.

"I loved the kid when I watched him play in junior and I continued to watch him when he was in Buffalo," added Keenan. "He's a real quality person, a great teammate, and he's super fit. He sets an example on the floor both in games and practices. And he's young, too.

"That's the M.O. of our whole group. We're a young group, but pretty experienced for a team so young -- a lot of Canadian championships (in summer lacrosse), a lot of experience in big-game situations."

Rubisch, Corbeil and Brett Mydske were good enough to be on Canada's team that won the most recent world indoor championship.

"We've got all three of them on our back end and they're three of the best in the business," said Keenan.

The whole defence-transition corps has been together for three years now, with the addition this year of Nik Bilic, and that continuity has resulted in a league-best 7.8 goals-against average.

Top-notch goaltending is a must in lacrosse and Aaron Bold, who gets most of the starts, and Brodie MacDonald supply it for the Rush.

"He's been awesome," Keenan said of Bold. "He's made big saves at key times. Last game, Rochester tied the score late and he made two big saves on Dan Dawson in the closing minute of regulation time. He's really raised the level of his game."

Up front, second-year forwards Mark Matthews, who was 2013 rookie of the year after being the No. 1 overall draft pick, and Curtis Knight are maturing impressively in the pro game. The former Whitby, Ont., junior teammates share the team goal scoring lead with 12 each. It was Matthews who scored the overtime winner in a thrilling 8-7 home triumph last Saturday over two-time defending champion Rochester. At six-foot-five, he's a superstar in the making.

"He's got a great passion for the game," said Keenan. "One thing about him I've found different from so-called premier players is that he's willing to do a lot of the dirty work, too. A lot of his big plays in games are without the ball. He's willing to do that. I look at (Buffalo forward) John Tavares who is 45 but who can still play because he's changed his game 10 times. You can constantly try to get better, and Mark is willing to do that."

Add it all up and it is clear to see that Keenan has been putting a complete package on the green carpet.

"It's my fifth year in Edmonton and we've had ups and downs," he said. "This is the first year you feel such positive vibes. You hear people talking about us. Everybody loves a winner. Winning consistently was a problem for us in the past. We were 2-6 at home last season. That was a problem. This season we're 3-0 at home so far. You can feel a different kind of vibe in the city -- that there's some belief in us. Again, it's early in the season, but there's progress there."

Average attendance in Rexall Place is 7,695 through three home games, which is less than what owner Bruce Urban needs to break even. So, everybody in the Rush organization is hoping the winning ways will fill more seats.

"We play an exciting brand of lacrosse people should want to see," said Keenan. "Bruce is a committed owner. We've worked together on finding the right formula and we seem to be getting there.

"The tempo of play is so fast these days. We don't designate one or two or three guys as transition players to move the ball quickly up the floor. We expect our entire defence group to contribute that way because we think they are capable of that. Skill levels across the league are phenomenal now and we fit that mould well."

Edmonton began NLL play in 2006 but it wasn't until 2010 that the Rush won more games than it lost. Last year's 9-7 record was the team's second .500-plus showing, although the 2012 lineup managed to get as far as the title game despite a 6-10 regular season. Winning the Champion's Cup that year would have been a colossal upset. Now, Keenan's crew looks more ready than most other NLL teams to push Rochester off the top of the heap.

Rush players are from either Ontario or B.C. except for defenceman John Lintz, a local who attends the University of Alberta, and faceoff specialist Jeremy Thompson, who is a First Nations player from upstate New York. A home playoff date for the first time in franchise history seems likely come spring.

"We've established a fan base and, to get more people out to games, they just need to see some results," said Lintz. "Getting a home playoff date would be amazing. If we get that, it would really cement us in the eyes of a lot of fans."

The West Division leaders play in Philadelphia on Saturday and at Minnesota on Feb. 15. They are at home against Toronto on Feb. 28 and against Vancouver on March 8. A March 14 game in Calgary precedes a March 21 home game against the Buffalo Bandits (5-1), who currently hold down first place in the East Division.

Kyle Rubisch  (Photo: Dale MacMillan)

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(Photo: Dale MacMillan)
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