EDMONTON - Rival coaches Chris Hall and Derek Keenan see Saturday’s National Lacrosse League matchup between the Washington Stealth and Edmonton Rush in exactly the same way.
As extremely important.
Keenan, in fact, said this week that possible playoff implications make the visit of Edmonton’s Western Division rival “our most important game of the year.”
At 2-and-7, the cellar-dwelling Rush record is a mere half-game behind Washington’s and 1 1/2 games behind the Minnesota Swarm, now occupying third place in the five-team divisional race.
Does this steep climb mean playoffs are out of the question? Not in Keenan’s view.
And not in Hall’s opinion, either.
“This game is vitally important to both teams,” Hall said, admitting the possibility that the scheduled bye last week might leave the Stealth less than game-sharp in the first few minutes.
“We’ll get a good workout in Edmonton,” he promised. “We know how important it is.”
Keenan figures the last half of the season schedule favours his team, even if only slightly.
“After this game, we’ve got six more on the schedule and four of them are here at home,” he said. “The unbalanced schedule in the early season hurt us but we’ve got time to make it up, and we’re planning to start right now.”
Then, the articulate Keenan expanded the message: “We have to start right now.”
His words struck a positive chord among veteran players who realize Edmonton is the only team currently out of a playoff spot in either division.
Goaltender Aaron Bold insisted that the Rush have enough talent to change the picture: “It would be great to have everything straightened out and wind up holding a trophy at the end of the playoffs.”
A seven-year veteran who played his first pro season in Portland, where Keenan was the coach, Bold pointed out “everything has been said and done” about the unsatisfactory first half this year.
“We have to own up to the mistakes that we’ve made as a team throughout the season and go on from here. What we need is a 100% effort, with everybody being responsible.
Keenan said a recent Rush pattern of allowing rival teams to score in quick bunches — especially in last week’s 16-15 loss when the Philadelphia Wings exploded for six goals in seven minutes — has come as a bit of a surprise.
“Except for recent games,” he said, “we had some of the best defensive marks in the whole league.”
Bold stepped up for his share of any blame after the debacle in Philly.
“I’m not making any excuses,” he volunteered. “This has been a pretty good year for me, I think, but I know a goaltender can have a bad night and it hurts the team when it happens.
“When I don’t play well, I have to be prepared for the consequences.”
Washington Stealth (3-7) at Edmonton Rush (2-7)
Saturday, March 24
Rexall Place, 7 p.m.
Wash — The Stealth were part of an encouraging start for the hometown Rush. Playing at their suburban Seattle home, Washington absorbed a one-sided and memorable whipping. The memory of that 16-5 defeat gives head coach Chris Hall plenty of ammunition if he’s a fire-and-brimstone guy in the dressing room before a game. In a trade-day dedal, the Stealth sent veteran Jamie Koesterer to the Rochester Knighthawks in a conditional deal.
Edm — Despite their recent difficulties on defence, a large part of the Rush trouble has come on offence. Through 10 games, they have yet to reach the 100-goal mark. A win tonight would make the opportunity to play at home against Minnesota, Buffalo, Calgary and Toronto before the end of the season much more appealing.
Steve Toll became a Rush defender at Tuesday’s deadline and was immedately tabbed as a vital piece of the defensive corps, where young Kyle Rubisch has been a standout and promising Chris Corbeil is likely to return from injury next week.
Who to Watch
Wash — Lewis Ratcliff F
The leading Stealth scorer was born in England 31 years ago and spent his developmental years in B.C. He was most valuable player in the 2006 all-star game. Ratcliff also starred in a couple of Mann Cup victories before moving to the National Lacrosse League. Currently, he leads the Stealth in goals, points and shots on goal and is close to the team lead in minutes spent on the floor.
Edm — Aaron Bold G
Statistically, the best game of the season for the Rush netminder came in the early-season meeting with Washington. The 27-year-old Victoria product turned aside 43 of 48 shots -- more than respectable for any high-level lacrosse ‘keeper. Born in Victoria, Bold played a total of six seasons in Portland, San Jose and Rochester, spending much of the time learning his trade before joining the Rush and setting a torrid early-season goalkeeping pace this season.
Before this season, the Rush had never surrendered more than 15 goals in a loss. This year, they have given up 16 on two occasions, including that loss to Philadelphia, and wound up yielding 45 goals in three consecutive losses . . . With Paul Rabil refusing to sign a contract this season, Keenan admits that he gave special effort in a bid to move the unhappy player, but no luck. The nine-point scoring explosion for Shawn Williams last week move him into 16th place in league points. Now the NLL’s career iron man, he produced a quick explanation of the pre-playoff optimism that touches most clubs every year. “There’s always an excuse,” he said, “and there are always people who refuse to use them.”