After two weeks of anticipation, the playoffs have finally arrived in Saskatchewan, just in time for two familiar foes to renew a longstanding rivalry.
The Saskatchewan Rush and the Calgary Roughnecks will meet in the National Lacrosse League West Final Sunday at Sasktel Centre at 5 p.m., the fifth playoff meeting between the prairie rivals.
Rush head coach Derek Keenan knows it’s going to a battle from start to finish after three close games in the regular season.
“It’s a new season, that’s kind of the way we approach it,” he said. “Regular season’s done. The post-season is completely different. As far as I’m concerned, we’re zero and zero against them.”
The Rush swept the season series, but two of three games were won by a one-goal margin.
A 10-6 Rush win in February backstopped by a 37-save performance from Evan Kirk was overshadowed by Ben Macintosh’s overtime heroics in a 13-12 win in Calgary, scoring 46 seconds into overtime.
To end the regular season, it was Mark Matthews setting the NLL single-season assist record at 84, notching six assists in an 11-10 win over the Roughnecks.
The Roughnecks find themselves in the West Final after an 15-12 upset victory against the Colorado Mammoth last week in the West semifinal.
Arguably the hottest NLL team down the stretch, Keenan wants to disrupt the potent Calgary offence that flexed its muscles.
“You certainly can’t stand back and let them dictate the pace and the tempo and give them too much time and space,” he said.
Rush defender Brett Mydske is going to be taking a physical approach to limit the opportunities of Roughneck standouts Dane Dobbie and Curtis Dickson.
“As soon as you step on the floor, you have to get up in their face and pressure them all over the floor,” he said. “You got to make it difficult for them to make a pass by getting on their hands and making them move their feet.”
With a switch in playoff format, it’s a one-game matchup to get the Rush to a fourth consecutive NLL Finals appearance. That emphasizes the need for stout goaltending even more.
“Goaltending is always important, but playoffs, especially in a do-or-die game is certainly crucial,” Keenan said.
With the stakes that much higher knowing his team needs to leave it all out there, managing emotions becomes a huge focus for Keenan and his coaching staff.
“You also have to have an attitude if something bad happens of what happens next?'” he said. “Don’t worry about what just happened, move on and control your emotions that way.”
To kick off the Sunday game action, the Rush are hosting a fan rally at the Sasktel Centre parking lot. Face painting, music and food trucks will all be part of the festivities before fans can cheer on Rush players as they exit the team bus and enter the arena aroun 2:40 p.m.