By Graeme Perrow
The Toronto Rock and Edmonton Rush begin their 2011 seasons this Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre. The Rock are coming off a very successful, if streaky, season. They started off 6-1 and then lost five in a row before pulling it together again and winning three of their last four. Despite finishing with a mediocre 9-7 record, the Rock got hot in the playoffs and returned to the Championship game for the first time since winning it in 2005. They lost to a superior Washington Stealth team, but a number of Rock players had never been to the finals before and got a taste of what it's like to get there – and what it's like to lose. They will be hungry to get back there again and this time, take home the trophy.
The Rush had their most successful season by far in 2010. They finished above .500 for the first time and made the playoffs for the first time. In fact, it could be argued that they just didn't suck for the first time. The Rush missed making it to their first ever Championship game by one overtime goal. The long-suffering Rush fans were treated to an exciting season, and hopes are high in Edmonton that they can repeat their success in 2011.
The Rock and Rush met twice last year and split the series, with each team winning at home. In February, the Rock demolished the Rush 16-7 in Toronto, as Blaine Manning scored 5 goals and added 5 assists. A week later, Ryan Powell scored 4 and added 4 helpers as the Rush held off the Rock 14-13 in Edmonton.
When the Rock won the Championship in 2005, they were an offensive powerhouse, with Colin Doyle, Josh Sanderson, and Blaine Manning all finishing with over 100 points. Last year only Sanderson (then on Calgary, now on Boston) hit the century mark, but the Rock had four players over 80 points – the only other team to have more than two was the Minnesota Swarm who had three. (Yes, the Swarm. I checked it twice.) Two of those four were rookies so as long as the sophomore slump doesn't hit both Billings and LeBlanc, the Rock should still be right up there again in the goals scored department, especially after adding Pat Maddalena to the mix.
On the other side, the Rush tied for the most goals allowed last year so in the off-season, they were looking for ways to cut down on opposing attackers getting good shots on their goaltenders. Given the sheer size of the Rush defense, the Rock attackers may have trouble even seeing Matt Disher at all, let alone shooting at him. Only one player on the Rock roster (Tim O'Brien, who typically doesn't see much floor time) is listed at over 215 pounds, while the Rush have five, including three (one of which is Disher himself) at 260. And I'd like to see a Rock player try and pull the old swim move on 6-foot-10 David Morgan.
The big story of this game is Brodie vs. Patrick – the battle of the brothers Merrill. According to edmontonrush.com, the pair have only met in an NLL game once before, when the New York Titans (remember them?) featuring Patrick beat the Portland Lumberjax (remember them?) featuring Brodie back in 2008. Patrick is a tough defender and drops the gloves occasionally, while Brodie is the NLL's reigning Transition Player of the Year (two years running) and knows his way around both ends of the floor. Brodie is obviously one of the premier transition players in the game, but if anyone has ideas on how to shut him down, it might be his brother.
Given the fact that only one team scored more than the Rock last year, and nobody got scored on more than the Rush, you might think this will be a cakewalk for the Rock. It's hard to compare between divisions though – the Rush scored 11 fewer goals and allowed a whopping 45 more goals than the Rock last year, but ended up with a better W-L record. Personally, I'm predicting a Toronto win but I'll be surprised if it is a cakewalk.