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Pack Up: Black Wolves Hit The Road Against Rush

After getting the team’s first win of the season last week in Calgary, the Edmonton Rush (1-2) look to get to .500 when they host the New England Black Wolves (2-1) at Rexall Place on Friday at 9:30 p.m. ET. Watch the game live on NLL LIVE in the U.S. and TSN.ca in Canada.

Rush general manager and head coach Derek Keenan made his season debut last week after taking a leave of absence to start the year.

“It was nice to get back and be with the team,” Keenan said. “I thought the guys responded really well. Two teams went in there 0­-2 and someone was going to leave 0­-3 and I’m just thankful it wasn’t us. I thought we played a little more relaxed than we had the previous couple weeks and I think that helped us. I thought that we put together a pretty good performance.”

Edmonton’s last game also saw their offense score their highest total of the year, 16 goals, after only mustering 18 in the previous two games combined.

“It’s nice to get into the win column especially in a place like Calgary,” said Rush forward Mark Matthews, who led his team with eight points (3+5) in the victory. “It’s probably one of the best places to play lacrosse at this point. And when you’re playing in there and get a big win against a great Calgary team, it boasts a lot of confidence for us. Our offense was finally able to get over 10 [goals] and kind of get the ball rolling for us as an offense heading forward. And we’re just hoping to do that again in the weeks to follow.”

Last week, Rush assistant coach Jeff McComb said that the offense needed to be more physical and Keenan thought they did just that.

“I thought Riley Loewen and Jarrett Davis were the biggest contributors in that area,” Keenan said. “They create a lot of space for their teammates and also had some results with scoring themselves. I thought that we played harder through the middle, I thought we ran into offensive sets harder and with a little more passion, and we played more physical in our pick game than we had in the previous two weeks. I think it was mission accomplished in that area for sure.”

The Rush made roster moves to open up the right side, leading to Matthews, Loewen, and Greer combining for eight goals. Rookie Ben McIntosh also had an outstanding game scoring two goals and adding five assists. McIntosh is second on the team in scoring and the coach has liked what he has seen so far.

“He’s probably been our most consistent offensive guy,” said Keenan about the first overall pick from the 2014 NLL Draft. “He’s got a little more to his game than I thought he did. I think he’s pretty athletic and he’s strong, and he’s good in transition going back the other way as well. He’s very responsible, he’s got a pretty good set of hands down low and an ever-­improving mid-range game as well. We certainly like everything we see in him, he’s a real ‘buy-­in’ kid and he has really learned the system quickly. I just see continuing improvement in him going forward.”

Defender Jeff Cornwall’s status for the game Friday night is still up in the air after a hit with Curtis Dickson injured his shoulder, keeping him out of the rest of the game. The Rush have not determined his status, but said that they don’t think it’s serious.

As they feel they are starting to trend in the right direction after a less-than-ideal start, Keenan and the Rush are preparing for a surprising Black Wolves team that has already beaten two quality East Division opponents in the Rochester Knighthawks and Buffalo Bandits.

“From what I’ve seen they’re really good,” Keenan said. “They’ve got tons of speed and size and skill on offense and their back end is big. They move well, they move the ball up the floor well, Kirk has played really well for them. They’re 2-­1 and we’re 1­-2 and I think we both [are] deservedly so. We will have to be prepared [and at our] best this weekend.”

The Black Wolves seemingly face their biggest challenge of the young season after a tough home loss to the Minnesota Swarm. Not only did New England lose its first game of the season, but the team’s first road game comes less than a week later.

“I don’t think we handled the bye week very well,” said Black Wolves head coach Blane Harrison. “We had some obvious, well-publicized early success. That’s always nice to get, but sometimes it’s dangerous. We get into a bye week, and then we come back and I really felt that hurt us, especially mentally. Some of the goals that we gave up against Minnesota, we were expecting to see transition, we were expecting to see a little bit of pressure.

“Honestly, I don’t think we responded very well, especially to transition and we gave up a number of goals. You look back on the tape and go ‘wow, we probably could’ve eliminated most, if not all of them.’ It is what it is. We have a great opportunity to regroup and get right back in the saddle this weekend.”

The Black Wolves trailed the Swarm for most of the game, and though the final score was a decisive 19-13 outcome, the two teams went back and forth throughout. Though the Rush’s record is 1-2, they themselves faced a tough Swarm team earlier this year and lost. With another even matchup, New England is focused on making the extra efforts and getting the victory.

“I think that Derek [Keenan] always has his team well prepared,” noted Harrison. “They are a very strong team, and they are a very good defensive unit. Solid goaltending and I really like their offense. They’ve got multiple sticks that can put the ball in the net. They swing it very well, and it’s definitely going to be a challenge for our defensive unit to see how good we really are; to be able to match that effort.”

In Saturday’s loss, forward Kevin Buchanan provided a lot of life for the New England offense, collecting nine points with five goals and four assists. While the veteran seems to really be coming into his own, Harrison gave some insight about Kevin’s journey to the roster.

“Kevin Buchanan is someone that we had with us a couple of years ago,” Harrison said. “He was always on our radar screen. As an individual away from the floor, I have a nice relationship with Kevin, so we’ve stayed in touch. When the new season came around, and we were looking for a couple of holes to fill. I reached out to Kevin to see if he wanted to come back and he did, and we’re glad that he did. Kevin’s got some really good skill sets, and I think he’s really quick off the dribble. He’s got quickness, he can drive up the middle, and he’s got a pretty good shot when he gets his hands free. The nice thing with Kevin, and he’ll be the first one to tell you, is he’s got a lot of room to improve and learn the game.”

Other Black Wolves are looking to improve their performance from last game. Goaltender Evan Kirk looks to get back to business in the net after giving up more goals last weekend than the team’s first two games combined. Rookie Quinn Powless suffered a lower-body injury that took him out the game against the Swarm. With some uncertainty in the roster and a tough loss still fresh in the minds of the team, team leaders must come forward to bring the team together again.

“This is a big one; a big test for us,” said Black Wolves assistant captain Craig England. “Obviously, we started with three games at home, which was nice for us to start. Then again, it’s a big test for us. We’re going to face a good team here in Edmonton, and that’s something we have to live up to. I think we’re ready for this challenge, and I think it’s going to be a good one for sure.”

In its three home games, the Black Wolves pulled in strong crowds, creating a good foundation for a fanbase that continues to grow. The team also looks to grow from the mistakes the pack made in its first home stand as they move forward to the first road game.

“You always have to learn from your failures,” Harrison admitted. “It always seems to be the best teacher. Collectively, we’ll learn from our mistakes, we’ll clean up some things that we feel we need to clean up. Hopefully, we’ll be better for it. A short week in most cases is probably not ideal, but I think for us, coming back and playing on a Friday night, is probably the best thing for us. To get right back at it, and try to eliminate some of those things that we committed last Saturday night.”

Story by Mike Wilson (@RushBeat) & Alyssa McLaughlin (@BlackWolvesBeat) for NLL.com. Photo by Dale MacMillan.