Saskatchewan Rush take stock of season after narrowly missing out on playoff berth

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan Rush miss NLL playoffs by a hair, reflect on third straight year without post-season lacrosse'
Saskatchewan Rush miss NLL playoffs by a hair, reflect on third straight year without post-season lacrosse
WATCH: Coming up one goal shy of punching their ticket to the NLL post-season, the Saskatchewan Rush are taking stock of their year after a 12-11 loss to the Toronto Rock in their regular season finale – Apr 22, 2024

Leaving the field at SaskTel Centre for the final time this season, it was an empty feeling Saturday night for Saskatchewan Rush captain Ryan Keenan.

“It sucks to be in this spot,” said Keenan.

One goal short — that’s what the Rush are grappling with as they head into an off-season that once again has arrived to soon for the three-time National Lacrosse League champions.

For the third year in a row, Saskatchewan is on the outside of the NLL playoff picture following a heartbreaking 12-11 loss at the hands of the top-ranked Toronto Rock.

A game in which would have sent the Rush to the post-season with a win, after the Albany FireWolves dispatched the New York Riptide to let Saskatchewan control their own destiny.

“It’s probably easier the last two years when we haven’t really been in it and we just knew we weren’t there not having the group,” said Keenan. “Whereas this year to be in this last game and be right there, go goal-for-goal with the number one team, it sucks because you immediately start looking back at all those games throughout the year that should have been ours.”

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Saskatchewan’s playoff drought has now stretched back five years with their last post-season game coming in the spring of 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic meant no playoff games were held in the NLL in either 2020 or 2021, which has now been followed by three straight seasons of 8-10 records by the Rush.

Click to play video: 'Mark Matthews scores game-winner to eliminate Saskatchewan Rush in return to SaskTel Centre'
Mark Matthews scores game-winner to eliminate Saskatchewan Rush in return to SaskTel Centre

From the onset of the 2024-25 season, the Rush had been chasing the pack for a playoff spot after beginning the year with just one win over their first five games.

Rush co-head coach Jimmy Quinlan said it’s hard to not look back on their inconsistent first half as the reason why they’ll be watching from the sidelines.

“You want those ones back but you don’t get those ones back,” said Quinlan. “It’s that idea of making sure right from the get go and in every game you’re playing with the urgency and that desperation that we showed over the second half of the season.”

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Despite the odds stacking up against them the Rush were able to hang in the playoff race over the final month of the season with key, must-win victories over the Philadelphia Wings, Calgary Roughnecks and San Diego Seals to set the stage for Saturday’s season finale.

While the Rush weren’t able to convert their late season streak into a playoff spot, they were led down the stretch by players like Zach Manns, Mike Triolo and Nathaniel Kozevnikov who were all acquired last summer during a major re-tooling of the roster to get younger and quicker.

A season-long theme of players having breakout performances according to Quinlan.

“I think of Jerrett Smith, we got him last year basically off the streets and he made huge strides,” said Quinlan. “Isaac Ngyou made huge strides as a guy who played every game for us, Keegan Bell and Mike Triolo as guys who were found as street free agents, they were awesome.  [Manns] took the steps we wanted, [Robert Church] as good, there wasn’t one player who didn’t get better as the season went on and that’s what you want to see.”

“The future is bright, it’s just unfortunate we’re not playing next week.”

Unlike last year’s turbulent off-season which saw general manager Derek Keenan trade away veterans such as Mark Matthews, Kyle Rubisch and Matt Beers, the Rush are expecting the majority of their current core to remain intact.

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That includes star forward Robert Church, as the Rush leading scorer inked a one-year contract extension in March to stay in Saskatchewan.

“That’s a guy who was going to be a free agent and I’m sure he was going to be offered by every team in this league and for no shortage of cash,” said Rush defenceman Holden Garlent. “He sees us being a championship team in the future and he wants to be a part of it. If a guy like that believes in us, one of the best players in the world, then he sees something special and I think we all see it in ourselves as well.”

Finishing the season with 100 points and the seventh-most goals in the NLL with 45 tallies, Church said that continuity was a big part in re-signing with his goal to chase more titles in Saskatchewan.

“It looks like we’ll have almost everyone back next year which is big,” said Church. “In previous years when we were winning, we were getting everyone back and you kind of just build chemistry. The last couple of years there’s been a lot of turnaround, especially on offense.”

Now six years removed from the franchise’s last NLL championship, the Rush are still building towards returning to that calibre of team on the floor.

However, the atmosphere in the fourth quarter at SaskTel Centre against Toronto brought back memories of that ‘golden era’ for Church.

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“It reminded me of the old times honestly,” said Church. “The ‘Go Rush, Go’ chants when we were 6-on-5, we feed off that and it was awesome to see. Hopefully there were some people in the building [watching] their first game and they’ll keep coming back.”

The optimism is present throughout the lineup, however the Rush will now embark on a lengthy off-season before reuniting for training camp in November to prepare for the 2024-25 NLL campaign.

Reaching that next level will be the goal according to Keenan, without needing to rely on the final game of the season to decide their playoff fate.

“Honestly get excited for next year because it’s going to be a good one I think,” said Keenan.

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