Defending Champs Look to Limit Defensive Lapses
Being involved in the highest-scoring National Lacrosse League game in nine years made Saskatchewan Rush general manager and coach Derek Keenan uneasy. After all, defense is a Keenan credo, which made that 24-16 road win over the Vancouver Stealth last Saturday night a bit of a freak show.
Yes, goaltender Aaron Bold has had much better games, and his save percentage is poorest among all first-string goalies but, besides that, the entire back end has had its ups and downs this season.
"We've had a couple of those this year," Keenan said of allowing so many goals. "We gave up 19 to Buffalo earlier this year. We're getting away at times from what we do well. Other games we've been outstanding. We're still trying to find consistency. Giving up 16 isn't the identity of our team. It's a little bit of a concern, but the guys back there are proud and, typically, they bounce back. Our personnel hasn't changed. They are young and fit and have the right mindset, but at times we've played back on our heels a little bit, and that's not how we play."
Back-end checker Ryan Dilks describes the overall defensive showing to date as "uncharacteristic of our team."
"We're trying to get on a roll but, unfortunately, it seems we can't put in two good defensive efforts in a row," Dilks said. "Our D has been together for so many year now that we all know the system well, but we're taking shifts off a couple of times a quarter. As soon as we take a shift off, the ball winds up in the back of our net. We just have to limit our brain lapses."
The Rush have games against NLL East cellar dweller Toronto in Air Canada Centre on Friday and in Saskatoon's SaskTel Centre on Saturday as they try to catch NLL West leader Colorado. Easy pickings?
"Absolutely not," Dilks said. "It's such a tight league with so much talent, and Toronto is going to be desperate. If they can get two wins this weekend, they'll be right back in the chase. We'll have to be ready for a very difficult home-and-home."
The game against the Stealth was like a home game for the half of the Rush lineup from British Columbia, and the game in Toronto will be like a home game for the half of the lineup with hometowns in Ontario.
A myriad of memories are associated with the Rock and the ACC for Keenan. He ended his NLL playing career there in 1999 and he got his first NLL coaching job with the Rock the following season as an assistant to the late and great Les Bartley. He was named interim head coach in November 2003 when an ailing Bartley left the bench. He was fired six games into the 2004 season when a home loss to Buffalo dropped the defending champs to 2-4.
"We had a tough start, but I think we would have turned it around," Keenan said. "But everything happens for a reason. I could have toiled on there for years and never have got the opportunities I've had since."
Keenan has returned to the ACC often in coaching other NLL teams, and one of the most important victories of his coaching career occurred in the arena the last time he was behind a bench there, when the Rush beat the Rock in the first game of the 2015 championship series they would sweep.
Keenan, 54, recorded his 100th head coaching win earlier this season, and only former Buffalo coach Darris Kilgour is ahead of him in the record book.
His offense has been purring like a contented cat.
Mark Matthews has 22 goals and 40 assists for a Rush-best 62 points. He might not finish with as many goals he had last season, 53, but he might be even more valuable in 2016 than he was in 2015 because of key role in diversifying the attack. Matthews had two goals and eight assists in Saturday's shootout.
"He had a bit of a tough start from a shooting perspective," Keenan said. "The last two or three games, he's started to shoot the ball better. He had pneumonia last week, yet he came in a played really hard while not feeling well. Like a lot of great players, he's going to draw a lot of attention. Mark is a team player. I've coached him since junior. He's honestly more concerned with the result than his stats. He's a really coachable kid. He wants what is best for the team. He could score three or four a game down the stretch and nobody would be surprised with that because that's how talented he is."
Zack Greer has a team-high 27 goals in the nine games he has played. He missed one due to commitments to his financial analyst job in Los Angeles.
"Zack has been really good," Keenan said. "The thing with Zack is that he plays hard all the time. He gets to the dirty areas, he scores big goals, he's grinding all the time. He travels all over North America in his day job, then flies in to play lacrosse. He just keeps grinding away."
Curtis Knight, coming off of a five-goal performance, is not yet 100 percent after missing all of last season with a knee injury.
"He's getting close," Keenan said. "There were significant signs in Vancouver. His quickness was back. He ran past people at times. He's always going to play with a huge heart. Now he's starting to get his skills and quickness back. He was out for more than a full year and had a long rehab because the injury was near catastrophic. It took a little longer than normal to get back. It'll be a full season before he's back to 100 percent, but he's real close."
Add Robert Church (23 goals) and Ben McIntosh (18 goals) to the mix, and the Rush offense comes at a goalie from all angles.
A home-and-home set with Colorado on the April 15-16 weekend could decide first place in the NLL West.
"It's setting up that way, but crazy things can happen, so we can't look beyond this weekend," Keenan said.
Meanwhile, the players are grateful for the open arms the Saskatchewan sports community has extended. Attendance was 13,720 at the last home game.
"It's amazing," Dilks said. "It's absolutely incredible how the fans are so welcoming. It's mind-blowing to see how it's being picked up. The boys are loving it, that's for sure."
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