Saturday didn’t start the way the Saskatchewan Rush would have liked, but they certainly won’t complain about the way the night ended.
It’s not common to see a score of 1-0 after the first quarter of a box lacrosse game. The Rush were coming in having lost game two on the road to Rochester, but having beat up on the Knighthawks 16-9 in Game 1. It was the first Game 3 in NLL history. Every previous championship had been won in a two-game sweep.
With a few balls bouncing off the post and a handful of huge saves by Knighthawks goalie Matt Vinc, Rush head coach Derek Keenan started to get a little nervous.
“It was a little frustrating not being able to score in the first quarter,” he said.
“I (thought) ‘oh boy, another Matt Vinc night’, but we finally got to him and the balls started to drop.”
After that first period of one-goal action, the floodgates opened in the second.
It started at 14:35, when Ryan Keenan found Jeff Shattler in front of the net. Shattler found twine to tie the game at one. The Rush scored three more to go up 4-1, including a leaping strike from Keenan.
Rochester answered with a pair of goals and the teams traded a few more scores, with the Rush up 6-4 at the half.
The Rush got off to a slow start in the third quarter, giving up four goals, including one shorthanded, while only scoring one of their own.
With a slim one-goal lead, Rush goalie Evan Kirk made a pair of huge saves, diving across his crease to rob Rochester of what looked to be a sure-goal.
That was as close as the Knighthawks would come. Saskatchewan scored five times in the fourth quarter to put away their opponents 15-10, and take their third NLL title in four years.
Shattler was named MVP. The forward finished the game with four goals and an assist, adding to his three goals and four assists in the Game 2 loss and a single assist in Game 1.
The Rush also benefitted from big performances from captain Chris Corbeil, who finished with three goals, Mark Matthews and his eight assists, and Ben McIntosh, who earned a pair of goals and four assists on the night.
Keenan said the atmosphere, including the rambunctious home crowd, helped motivate the Rush, pushing them to victory.
“It was great, great energy. We fed off of that,” he said.
“I think we kind of turned the tables on (Rochester) in the second and fourth quarters. We were the better team those quarters because we pushed the tempo on them. We had numerous transition opportunities and we made them chase us a lot, which is tiring. The energy level, I thought, for our guys was good.”
Keenan gave a lot of credit to the Knighthawks. The Rush only lost five games all year, including Game 2 of the finals. Three of those losses came to Rochester.
“Credit them, because they made it really, really hard on us, which makes it sweeter to win. But we had a little more left,” he said.
“Going forward, we’re going to have to figure that out, because I think they’re going to be there for a few years. They’re a very good team. They’ve recovered from a couple of tough seasons after winning some championships, and rebuilt the way we have.”
Knighthawks coach Mike Hasen said there’s no secret sauce to his team’s success against the Rush.
“It’s hard work. It’s no secret,” he said.
“We’re talented, but we’re a hard-working group as well. We tried to work harder than they did. It’s an awful feeling right now, but where these guys were, you can’t say enough about their compete level and what they do for each other. It sucks big time that we weren’t able to finish the way we wanted, but this group is special.”
While the Rush had a season straight out of the storybooks, going undefeated in their division, Rochester had a very different start to the season. They came out of the gate 2-6, before turning a corner and working hard all the way to the league finals.
“The roller coaster we went through this year made everyone stronger, and it made everybody realize that this league is crazy. This league has so much parity. Anybody can beat anybody any night,” Hasen said.
“If you stick to it and work together, good things can come. I think that’s one lesson I hope this group takes away. When they believe in each other and stick to the process, and care for the guy beside them, you can overcome a 2-6 rough start and have an opportunity to be here.”
Teams to lose pair of players in expansion draft
While both the Rush and Knighthawks built strong teams ahead of the 2018 season and have a solid foundation to build on, both will lose key pieces in the offseason.
The NLL is expanding, adding Philadelphia and San Diego. Each team will give up two players in an expansion draft. They can protect 10 runners and a goalie, or 11 runners and no goalie. Only five offensive players can be protected.
I’d like to keep these guys for as long as I can,” Rush coach and GM Derek Keenan told Kevin Mitchell of the StarPhoenix.
“But the reality is, expansion’s good for the league, good for the game, good for the players who should be in this league and aren’t. We’ll figure that out when the time comes.”
Following the loss Saturday, Knighthawks coach Mike Hansen was less conciliatory.
“Two guys on this team aren’t going to be here next year because of expansion,” he said.
“That’s one thing that sucks, because this is a special group that worked so hard together, and to just have two pieces ripped off – they’re going to be good pieces. It’s tough to swallow right now because you’d love to see what these kids could do next year.”