For the first time in team history, the Georgia Swarm is competing for the Champion's Cup, finishing first in the East Division at 13-5. Georgia will take on the two-time defending National Lacrosse League champions, the Saskatchewan Rush.
The two teams have only met once this season in the season opener that resulted in a win for Georgia, 18-10. Saskatchewan led the West Division regular season with 12-6 record and continued its strong season by sweeping the Colorado Mammoth in the West Division Finals.
The Rush brings a strong offense to the field, led by Mark Matthews, a 2016 NLL MVP finalist and NLL First Team All-Pro player. Racking up 113 regular season points, Matthews is second in the NLL in total points, behind Georgia’s own Lyle Thompson. He enters the Champion's Cup leading the Rush in goals scored and the league in assists with 73.
Joining Matthews is a deep lineup of forwards in Robert Church, Ben McIntosh and Adam Jones. Church and McIntosh combined for 67 goals on the season, 29 of them on the power play. Church leads the two in assists with 42 on the season and is tied for second in league playoff assists with nine.
“Our goals all season were first to finish in the division, then win the West and then win another championship so we’re almost there,” Church said following the team’s 11-10 win over Colorado.
Six-year veteran Jones rounds out the top forwards for Saskatchewan—traded for Zack Greer—and has stepped up during the playoff. Leading the NLL in playoff goals with a current total of seven, Jones will be the Rush’s one of the main players for Swarm fans to keep an eye on in Game One.
Saskatchewan's defense is arguably the primary reason why they have won two championships, retaining one of the toughest defenses in the league the last several years. This in part is thanks to one of their strongest defenders, assistant captain Kyle Rubisch. In 16 games played, he has the most caused turnovers with 36 and is tied in the playoffs with fellow defenseman Ryan Dilks—the 2016 NLL Defensive Player of the Year—for five CTO’s each.
Matt Hossack, rookie defender for the Rush, posts one of the most impressive offensive stat of the season: five goals on five attempts – a perfect 100% on shots. The NLL’s top five goal scorers range from 17%-20% shooting percentage, putting him far above the rest. Neither his streak nor confidence have broken so far this season and have carried over into playoffs.
The transition team features one of the most significant story lines of the finals. Three members of the Georgia Swarm—Lyle, Jerome Thompson and Miles Thompson—will be facing off against their eldest brother, Jeremy Thompson. Jeremy is one of the best faceoff men in the sport, winning 54% of his 418 faceoffs this season in addition to scooping up 179 loose balls. The last time the four Thompson Brothers faced each other, Jeremy went 15-for-24 on faceoffs and recorded an assist while collecting six loose balls.
“Always have a good mind, encourage the people around you and most importantly, never give up,” Thompson told PA Now about his on-the-floor success.
The Rush transition players are accompanied by Jeff Cornwall, team captain Chris Corbeil and Mike Messenger. Cornwall leads all Rush transition players in goals scored, his biggest coming in last year's Champion's Cup against the Buffalo Bandits. He scored the game-winning goal with 12 seconds on the clock, giving his team the sweep against Buffalo and its second straight Champion's Cup title.
Corbeil has caused 25 turnovers with 100 loose ball pickups. Appropriately nicknamed “Cap,” Corbeil has served as team captain for the Rush since November 2014.
Messenger has proven to be one of the biggest defensive threats in the playoffs as well as regular season, going 42-for-90 on faceoffs in regular season play. The transition rookie came to Saskatchewan with back-to-back NCAA Div. II championships under his belt and a USILA/Nike Div. II Most Outstanding Player title.
Anchoring the backend for Saskatchewan is its elite goaltender, Aaron Bold. With a .764 SV% on the season, Bold recorded an 11.22 GAA, third-best in the NLL. Bold had 32 saves in the team's final win over Colorado to clinch the NLL West Division Final, the defense helping hold Colorado to long-range shots to shut down hopes of a tie game. He was named the 2016 Champion's Cup MVP and led all NLL goaltenders in goals-against average (10.30), wins (12) and career-high minutes played (1042:14) last season. Absent from the Rush's first meeting with the Swarm this season due to a preseason line brawl in a match against the Calgary Roughnecks, Bold will be back and center for the Champion's Cup.
Backup goaltender Tyler Carlson has only started two games this season, earning the loss against Georgia in the season opener, but still does his part to support his teammates. Formerly a member of the Minnesota Swarm, Carlson is one of the most enthusiastic goalies in the league who has certainly accepted his role as Saskatchewan's backup.
GM and head coach Derek Keenan is the NLL’s all-time leader in coaching victories with 125 after his team’s West Division win. Keenan has coached in the NLL for 17 years, previously with Buffalo, Toronto, Anaheim and Portland. The 55-year-old has won the NLL GM of the Year award and the Les Bartley Award for Coach of the Year three times each. Keenan is in his eighth year with the Rush and signed a four-year contract extension in March of this year.
Previously, Keenan partnered with Georgia head coach Ed Comeau as assistant coaches for the 1999 NLL title winning Toronto Rock. Together, they won three more championships before parting ways with Toronto. The Champion's Cup will be a memorable rendezvous for the pair as their teams battle for the title.
"We have played our game so far but it's going to be tough and it's going to be tight. I like the way we've played so far in the playoffs," Keenan told Rush News.
Inhabited for over 8,000 years and established in 1883, Saskatoon is home to the Saskatchewan Rush. It is located in the middle-southern portion of the Saskatchewan province, between a five and six hour drive from Edmonton and Calgary.
Summers in Saskatoon average 77°F, but winters dip to a 14°F average at the end of October and continue to bottom out around -22°F.
Saskatoon is a versatile city that has produced some household names such as Joni Mitchell and Life of Pi author Yann Martel. Johnny Cash also co-wrote the song "The Girl from Saskatoon," earning the city at least a few bragging rights. It is also home to two universities: the University of Saskatchewan and the First Nations University of Canada.
Former Pro-Wrestler, Bret 'The Hitman' Hart made an appearance at the Rush's March 24th match against the Calgary Roughnecks. The WWE Hall of Famer has family ties to Saskatoon and is a Canadian Sports Icon.
The Rush moved from Edmonton to Saskatoon prior to the 2016 season after spending 10 seasons in their origin city. They boast the second highest fan attendance in the NLL, averaging 14,052 fans per game.
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