The Rapid City Rush needed some kind of a jolt to get their season going.
Languishing in the bottom half of the Central Hockey League standings and struggling to stay ahead of a .500 won-loss record in early January, they decided to clean the slate.
“Our new season starts today!” proclaimed a hand-scrawled missive on a locker room whiteboard after a 3-1 home-ice loss to the Wichita Thunder on Jan. 8.
That message alone didn’t do the trick, but an apparent attitude change did as the Rush went on a tear from there.
Rapid City posted a 20-9-2 mark in a torrid stretch run to finish 35-24-7, securing the fourth spot in the standings and, more importantly, home-ice advantage in the opening round of the Ray Miron President’s Cup playoffs.
Rapid City opens their best-of-seven quarterfinal matchup with the Missouri Mavericks with Game 1 Friday at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center Ice Arena at 7:05 p.m. Game 2 is Saturday night at the Ice Arena.
Forwards Jared Brown, Jesse Schultz and Rusty Masters fueled the turnaround, jelling offensively for Rapid City in the second half.
“It wasn’t just that saying that got us going,” said Brown, who poured in 10 goals, including four game-winners, and 24 assists to lead Rapid City’s self-proclaimed second season.
“(It was) everybody starting over with a more positive attitude about their numbers,” said Brown who leads the team with 18 goals and 32 points. “Guys just started playing better, just became more consistent. We just became more confident.”
Masters, who missed nine games because of injury but still added nine goals, including tallies in seven of Rapid City’s last eight games, said the restart allowed players to put a rough start in the rear-view mirror.
“We just put everything behind us and said, ‘let’s start from here and see what happens.’ I think we really finished off the season strong and we are in the playoffs,” Masters said.
“Overall as team we’ve been better offensively. Rusty doesn’t get enough credit with how good he is,” said the veteran Schultz, who rejoined the Rush in December after starting the season in Italy. Schultz led the second-half push with 14 goals and 36 total points.
Ferras believes the adversity has prepared his team for its fourth playoff run in the five-year history of the franchise.
“The second half, guys battled through injuries and played so hard. We’ve been playing playoff hockey since December. So this is nothing new for us,” he said.
The season has been a similar saga for the Mavericks, starting 8-8-0 and battling a spate of injuries. Thirteen different players have spent time on injured-reserve for the Mavericks this year.
“All told we’ve had 170 man-games missed this year, which is probably double what we’ve dealt with before,” Mavericks coach Scott Hillman said. “We’re mending. We’re probably closer to being healthy than we’ve been for a couple of months.”
The Mavericks, 35-25-6, persevered to finish fifth in the standings, just one point behind Rapid City in a race that came down to the final weekend. The Rush took 3-of-4 points from the Denver Cutthroats, while Missouri beat Tulsa and league-leader Allen, then lost to Wichita.
Leading Missouri is league scoring champion and MVP Sebastien Thinel with 29 goals and 67 assists.
Forward Kenton Miller has added 30 goals and 21 assists in spite of only playing in 53 games because of injury and call-ups to the American Hockey League.
Missouri’s goalie tandem of Mathieu Corbeil, 10-9-1, and Mike Clemente, 25-15-4, have also spent time in the AHL. Corbeil also missed most of November with injury.
The Rush counter with 2010 rookie of the year Danny Battochio, who bounced back from season-ending knee surgery last year, and Tim Boron, named this week as CHL goaltender of the month for March.
Boron finished with the highest save percentage in the league (.924 this year) for the second straight year.
“We know the goaltenders are going to give us the opportunity to win,” Ferras said.
The Rush and Mavericks met just three times in the regular season, but haven’t played each other since splitting two games on Rapid City on Jan. 18-19.
“It’s a great matchup from what know so well from the three games we played against each other,” Hillman said, laughing. “It’s been like forever since we played. It’ll be interesting, probably a lot of question marks, since both teams have made a lot of roster moves since the last time we saw each other.”
Hillman, who has guided the Mavericks to playoffs berths in all four years of the franchise’s existence, expects a long series between the Rush, who swept Missouri en route to the 2010 championship.
“We know they have great penalty-kill, great goaltending, yet on the offensive end they have some very dangerous players,” Hillman said. “Probably not the opponent we would have picked to play in Round 1. That’s the way it falls and you get ready the best you can."
Ferras offers similar respect for the Mavericks.
“They’ve done a tremendous job with the injuries that they’ve had. On paper, that’s a great team,” he said.
The Rush and Mavs also match up well off the ice. Missouri trails only Wichita in average attendance (5,522), with Rapid City not far behind in third with 4,662.
“People look at your home record and say, 'geez, you should be winning every home game with support like that every night,'” Hillman said. “Truth is, visiting teams like to play in buildings like that too. There’s a definite advantage to a home team with a full building. Both benches get fired up when the place is loud and I think we’re looking forward to seeing that in both cities."