The Saskatchewan Rush opened the 2019 NLL season with a comeback bid that fell just short Friday night in New England.
A late fourth-quarter power-play goal stood as the game-winner for the Black Wolves as they held off the Rush to take a 12-11 decision at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.
The two teams entered the final quarter deadlocked at 10-10, and the score was kept even just a minute into the final period when Rush goalie Evan Kirk denied Callum Crawford on a penalty shot. But just 30 seconds later, the Wolves jumped ahead as Stephan Leblanc whipped a shot around the Saskatchewan defender and into the far corner behind Kirk.
The Wolves went up 12-10 with 5:12 left and Rush defenceman Brett Mydske in the penalty box as Riley O’Connor notched his fourth goal of the game, popping in a rebound after Kirk stopped Tyler Digby in close. The Rush cut the lead down to one with 1:09 to go on Robert Church’s hat-trick marker, but they were thwarted on one last threat with less than 10 seconds to go in regulation.
“We were flat to start and not very good defensively in the first half,” said Rush GM/head coach Derek Keenan. “I thought we were a lot better defensively in the second half but then our offence went stagnant. They packed the middle and we didn’t respond very well.
“We have to have a more consistent effort, we didn’t have a consistent compete level. We looked like a team that hadn’t played a game yet, so we’ll be better next week.”
The Rush play their home-opener next Saturday and raise their 2018 NLL Cup banner to the rafters of SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon as they host the expansion San Diego Seals.
A sluggish start by the Rush allowed the Black Wolves to get rolling early and the home side went up 3-0 midway through the first quarter before reigning league MVP Mark Matthews registered the Rush’s first goal of the season as he wired a shot from the top of the slot on the power play.
Matthews made it 4-2 less than a minute into the second quarter which kickstarted a Rush run of three goals. Church’s first of the night – coming on a power play – and a slick effort from Jeff Shattler just 25 seconds later brought the Rush even 4-4. The Black Wolves regained some footing and eventually established a second four-goal lead in large part thanks to shorthanded goals by O’Connor and Leblanc. Saskatchewan was able to cut that lead in half before halftime on a terrific low-high shot by Ben McIntosh and a marker by Marty Dinsdale only 40 seconds later.
The Rush dominated the third quarter, getting a power-play goal from McIntosh in the slot just 22 seconds into the frame, followed by goals 25 seconds apart as Church finished off a play in front of the net and McIntosh put home his hat-trick marker. That goal gave the Rush their first lead of the game and it held up until Crawford tied the game 10-10 with 48 seconds to go in the third quarter.
“It’s a tough one to swallow because we deserved a better fate,” said Rush goalie Evan Kirk, who totaled 41 saves. “You could say every excuse in the book, but they played well and we need to clean some stuff up.”
Shattler, the playoff MVP from this past spring, finished with a pair of goals for the Rush, while Matthews tallied eight points (2 goals, 6 assists) and Ryan Keenan racked up seven assists.