The kids had it hands down. Sure, last week’s rodeo crowds at Rodeo Rapid City were occasionally loud and boisterous, but a mere whisper compared to the roar of thousands of kids on hand Wednesday morning for the first ever School Day Game for the Rapid City Rush at the Rushmore Plaza Civic center.
It was a hockey game held in conjunction with the “Rush to Read More” program, a collaboration between the Rush, Rapid City Area Schools, and the United Way of the Black Hills.
And the standing-room-only crowd of area second, third and fourth graders saw their enthusiasm and non-stop cheering properly rewarded as the Rush snapped a four-game losing streak with a 6-3 win over the visiting Utah Grizzlies, spearheaded by a hat trick from six-year pro Kenton Miller.
The Rush tallied the game’s first goal when six-year pro Anthony Collins unleashed a wrister from a steep angle that found a path to the goal via a ricochet off Utah goalie Sean Maguire. The goal was only the second of the season for the Canadian veteran.
“Collins has a quick release and he found a hole. He works hard, he’s a great leader and a great locker room guy as well, so I was glad to see one finally go in for him,” Rapid City coach Danny Tetrault said.
The Rush lead was short-lived as the Grizzlies drew even a minute and 49 seconds later when Taylor Richart converted a blast from just inside the blue line.
After killing of a Utah power play chance — the Rush behind stellar play in net by Adam Vay (24/27) were a perfect 7/7 in penalty kills — Miller kicked off his big day by slipping home a back-hander on a breakaway to give the Rush a 2-1 advantage with 4:41 remaining in the first period of play. Josh Elmes and Evan Janssen earned helpers on the play.
"That was setup by Elmes,” Miller explained. “He faked everyone out so that the d-men stayed on the blue (line) not realizing it was going to come to me, and I had a free lane all the way down the ice.”
Again, the Grizzlies struck back when former Rush standout Ryan Walters bounced a puck off Vay from the side of the net to knot the game at two goals apiece with just 1:21 ran off the second period clock.
That would be one of the few Utah highlights of the period as aggressive forechecking by the Rush kept play largely in the Grizzly end of the ice for much of the period and set up Miller’s second goal of the day midway through the period (8:21).
Camped in the slot, Miller tapped in a pass from Jack Walker for the 3-2 go-ahead goal. Janssen earned his second assist of the game on the goal that closed out third period with the Rush clinging to a 3-2 lead.
“Forechecking is one of our strong points. That and working down low,” Miller said. “We are strong and fast and we know we can handle the puck, and when we are doing that we are good.
"We were just playing our game the whole way today trying to keep the pedal to the metal.”
The crowd toned down slightly (maybe) when Utah knotted the score on a Brendan Harms goal at the 1:52 mark of the third period.
The outcome looked further in doubt when Rush defenseman Ryan Weselowski trudged to the penalty box shortly thereafter. The Rush short-handed unit and Vay were up to the task killing off the critical penalty kill. And moments later (11:42 remaining), Hungarian born forward Pavel Jenys scored what would be the game winner when, situated in the low slot, he rippled the cords with a wrister off a nifty pass from Dante Salituro.
“I was open in front of the net and (Dante) Salituro made a great pass from behind the net and I just did what I do best, shoot the puck at the net, and it was in,” Jenys said of his 15th goal of the season. “I think that even from the first faceoff, we played really well and just kept going every period. And for us to win, we have to do that, play hard and forecheck hard. We always play tight games with Utah, and for us it’s a matter of playing tough in our zone, chip the pucks out, and play a simple game.”
Up 4-3, the Rush capped off the scoring with a couple of unassisted goals. Miller’s added this third goal of the day — and 15th of the season —converting a scoring chance in front of the net when the Utah goalie mishandled the puck, and Daniel Leavens added his ninth goal of the season on an empty netter with 1:55 remaining.
“It exciting to do that today,” Miller said of his hat trick. “I’ve never had a hat trick as a professional before, and to do that with all the kids cheering for you was really fun. There were some times when our team and their team kept saying we can’t hear anything whether there’s a whistle or anything.”
“To have all the kids involved today is good for the community and the school system here. It was a lot of fun for the players and the coaches and we got a win which made it special for everybody,” Tetrault added. “We scored four goals in Fort Wayne and now six tonight, so I think the guys are learning to take the puck to those areas and good things happen.
"We got our legs going in the second period and stuck with the game plan, didn’t get frustrated when they tied it up and remained composed. I know we lost four-in-a-row on the road, but it’s not as if we were getting dominated. They were pretty much one-goal games and so it was just good to be home ice and get a win in front of a big crowd.”
The Rush (16-28-2) and Grizzlies (17-21-6) continue this week’s three game series with weekend games on Friday and Saturday nights (7:05 each night).