Defence wins championships, but a little offence doesn’t hurt either.
Set up as a defensive battle, game one of the NLL Finals turned into a display at all ends of the field as the Saskatchewan Rush beat the Rochester Knighthawks 16-9 Saturday at Sasktel Centre.
From the outset, the last remaining NLL teams went punch for punch as players sprinted up and down the floor with a furious pace.
Boasting a league-best attack all season long, Rochester was the only team to beat the Rush twice this season, holding them to scores of 16-11 and 13-10 in the process.
The Rush were determined to put up goals and end the critiques.
That wasn’t the case early on. It was Evan Kirk and Matt Vinc going toe-to-toe.
Jeremy Thompson scored just over two minutes into the game to get the 11,842-people in attendance pounding their chests early.
It took more than five minutes for the Knighthawks to even the score, but chances at either end forced both goaltenders into miraculous saves.
The quarter finished at 2-2, but the shots were 17-9 for Rochester.
They kept that momentum up in the second quarter until Robert Church decided to take over.
With the Knighthawks up 4-3, the Rush sniper went on a rampage, scoring three goals in just over three minutes.
“I thought that Robert’s little run there was huge for us. He was a bit of a catalyst for us there in the second quarter,” head coach Derek Keenan said.
He didn’t stop his praise at Church.
“All in all, I’m really happy with our effort tonight. Tons of chances, played really hard defensively.”
On the second goal, Church bounced a pass to himself before finding space in the middle of the field and placing a shot in the far side of the net.
“I got some lucky bounces there, I made a bad pass, it bounced right to me and I went right to the net,” Church said, owning up to his fortunate error.
“I’ve made some bad passes in my day.”
Another standout performance came from defender Jeff Cornwall, who has a knack for playing his best in the playoffs.
At times, he looked to be moving twice as fast as the guys next to him, hounding opponents and running up the field for numerous breakaways.
Cornwall and McIntosh combined to score two goals to open the second half, part of seven consecutive Rush goals and six goals from the transition unit.
Keenan couldn’t help but gush about his efforts as well.
“He was really good. The goals are one thing, he’s capable, but defensively he was just a beast. Probably his best defensive game of the year.”
After the seven-goal onslaught, it was Saskatchewan holding a 12-6 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Anytime the Knighthawks would try to come back, a timely Rush goal would kill any momentum.
Billy Dee Smith assured his team wouldn’t be able to get that lead back.
With just over six minutes left in the game and his team chasing a 13-9 deficit, the Knighthawks defender lost his cool, handing Church a small beating that cost him six penalty minutes.
The Rush would add one on the marathon power play to seal the win.
Church led the way for the Rush with four goals and two assists. Marty Dinsdale was right behind him with one goal and four assists.
Joe Resetarits was the top Knighthawk with one goal and three assists.
In net, it was Evan Kirk with 35 saves for the Rush and Matt Vinc stopping 48 Rush shots in a game that totalled 108 shots on net.
With game two switching to Rochester (June 2), home to one of the NLL’s loudest buildings, Church thinks a repeat effort could crown them champions.
“We just want to put this thing away,” he said. “That’s the best we played all year and we’re going to need that same effort next week if we’re going to bring it home.”
If the Knighthawks win in Rochester, game three goes on June 9 at Sasktel Centre.
Keenan likes his team’s chances of ending the season away from home.
“Like I’ve said the entire year, we’ve been focused, we’ve been dialled in since the very beginning of training camp on what our goal is,” he said. “Our guys have worked extremely hard and now we’re one game away from doing it.”