March 28, 2014

NLL Weekend: Best of West vs. Beast of East

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

Cody Jamieson and the Rochester Knighthawks will look to halt the Edmonton Rush's 11-game unbeaten streak Saturday at Blue Cross Arena.

The 11-0 Edmonton Rush are one victory away from tying the National Lacrosse League record for longest regular-season winning streak set in 2007 by Rochester and they'll try for it right in Blue Cross Arena against the surging Knighthawks, who will be determined to see that it doesn't happen on their turf.

The weekend matchups (all times Eastern):

SATURDAY

Edmonton (11-0) at Rochester (9-3), 7:30 p.m.

The best in the West versus the best in the East with a record on the line -- it's the perfect scenario for a tense encounter. The Rush also have to play in Toronto on Sunday afternoon.

"It's our hardest weekend, for sure," general manager and coach Derek Keenan said of playing two games in less than 24 hours, including Saturday's tilt against the two-time defending NLL champion. "In my mind, these guys are still the benchmark. They're the guys with their names on the trophy the last two years. They're a very good team and, in fact, they're better than they were the last two years."

Edmonton is coming off a 14-5 home demolition of Buffalo that clinched the first home playoff date in franchise history. If might have been the Rush's best performance of the season.

"We were struggling a bit a couple of games ago but we refocused," defenseman Brett Mydske said.

Rochester didn't play last weekend, but rose to first in the East thanks to the Rush win over Buffalo.

"We're going to be in for a battle, so say the least," Knighthawks coach Mike Hasen said. "They are the best. They've beaten everybody. They're just an all-around good team right now."

Rochester lost 8-7 in Edmonton on Feb. 1. The rematch features the two best defenses and Grade A goalies Matt Vinc of the Knighthawks and his former backup Aaron Bold of the Rush. So what will determine the outcome?

"It comes down to patience," Keenan said. "That's one thing I like about the Rochester team and something we've learned from."

"We've got the best team coming in this weekend, and it's a good opportunity where we measure up against them," Rochester defenseman Mike Kirk said. "We're fired up to get back out there and start competing again."

Rochester is 5-0 at home this season.

Minnesota (3-9) at Calgary (7-5), 9 p.m.

Captain Andrew Suitor needs to lead Minnesota to at least four wins in its last six games if it hopes to contend for the final playoff berth in the East.

Minnesota has to win at least four of its remaining six games to catch Toronto and claim the third and last playoff berth in the East. The Swarm beat Buffalo 10-9 in overtime last Sunday to start out on what it hopes will be a late-season roll.

"That was a big win for us," assistant coach Aime Caines said. "It was a huge lift for us."

"We've had a close games, and a lot of them unfortunately have gone the wrong way," transition player David Earl said. "The mood is great now [after beating the Bandits]."

This will be the second of two meetings. Calgary won 15-13 at Minnesota on Feb. 8, but Roughnecks coach Curt Malawsky knows the Swarm will be energized by their overtime win over Buffalo.

"They're going to be coming in on a high and we're going to have to match their compete level if we're to be successful," Malawsky said.

Calgary faceoff specialist Geoff Snider knows how badly the Swarm need a win.

"They're young, athletic and competitive, and a group of guys who are hungry," Snider said. "They're going to make it very difficult on us."

Snider's faceoff prowess -- a record-worthy 65 percent or more game after game -- is an invaluable asset for the Roughnecks.

"He battles in that circle," Malawsky said. "It's not an easy job. You get pounded night after night."

Calgary is coming off a 13-8 win in Vancouver, where fast-break goals were a big part of the story.

"We really like the direction we're going," Malawsky said. "We're going to continue to push the ball and be smart doing it."

Calgary is 5-2 at home after losing to Edmonton in its last home game. Malawsky expects a better show this time than the one that disappointed Roughnecks fans against the Rush.

Philadelphia (4-9) at Colorado (5-8), 9 p.m.

Colorado's Adam Jones, a leading MVP candidate before he went down with an injury, is expected to return to the floor for the first time since Feb. 1.

This is the first of two meetings. These teams will close out the regular season in Philadelphia on April 26.

The Wings remained in contention for a playoff berth by defeating Toronto 14-13 at home last Saturday. Evan Kirk's goaltending and Kevin Crowley's six goals made it happen.

"Every game for us right now is a playoff game," assistant coach Jim Milligan said. "We're looking forward to going into Colorado. It is a great place to play."

Colorado, coming off a bye week, can solidify its hold on third place in the West by winning this game. Star forward Adam Jones is expected to return to the lineup after being out since Feb. 1 and captain John Grant Jr. can't wait to see No. 16 back on the green carpet.

''He was the candidate for MVP when he went down," Grant said. "He's been working hard to get back to 100 percent, and if he's back this weekend, I'm obviously going to enjoy having him back on the left side. It's going to be a huge benefit to have Jonesey back in the lineup -- if he's back."

Slow starts have hindered the progress of the Mammoth.

"We need to clean up our first five minutes and we should be OK," Grant said.

Buffalo (8-4) at Vancouver (3-9), 10 p.m.

This will be the only meeting this year. The teams met once last year. Buffalo won 15-10 when the Stealth were based in Everett, Wash.

Last weekend was a two-loss horror show for the Bandits, who were handcuffed 14-5 in Edmonton and lost 10-9 in overtime in Minnesota.

"We bounced back with a good game against Minnesota," transition player Dhane Smith said.

John Tavares is two goals shy of extending his NLL record to 800 goals. He broke the 1,700-point barrier last weekend.

"He's the greatest that's ever played," Bandits assistant Dan Teat said.

Vancouver fell behind Calgary 8-0 and lost 13-8 at home last weekend. Another loss, and the Stealth won't have much of a chance of qualifying for the postseason.

"It's tough playing those desperate teams," Teat said.

"How are you going to win if you give up eight goals then try to come back?" Stealth coach Chris Hall asked. "Only once in the last five games have we put up more than nine goals. We're just got to find a way to score more goals."

It's now or never, Ilija Gajic said.

"We've got to start winning now if we want to get into the postseason," he said. "We've got to be fundamentally sounder. We're making too many mistakes."

SUNDAY

Edmonton at Toronto (5-8), 3 p.m.

Edmonton beat Toronto 11-10 at home Feb. 28. The last time they were in Toronto, on March 24, 2013, the Rush jumped out to a 9-2 lead and cruised to a 17-12 victory. The only chance for a Rock upset in this one is if the Rush is run ragged by the Knighthawks the previous night.

"I wouldn't be mad if they went to double overtime and couldn't sleep all night," Rock forward Garrett Billings said

"Being an afternoon game after a night game, it certainly won't be easy," Keenan said.

Toronto, coming off a 14-13 loss in Philadelphia, has dropped four of its last five.

"We need a win in the worst way to hang onto our playoff spot," Rock coach John Lovell said

Billings has an NLL-best 92 points and the league's No. 1 defense will try to shut him down.

"I haven't done enough to help us get enough W's," he said. "Personal success is great, but where we're sitting, we're not comfortable. It's getting to desperation time in Rockland."

Keenan continues to challenge his players to be better each time they pull on their pads.

"It's another opportunity for us to prove how good we are," he said of the two-game weekend. "It's another benchmark. We've had a favorable schedule, but now we're into a tough stretch with five games in three weekends, and I'm interested in seeing how our club responds playing two tough teams back to back. It'll be a real test of our character to see where we're at."


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