When the Rapid City Rush's 2017-18 schedule came out, many fans probably didn't expect the final home game of the season to come in the regular season finale, which was Saturday against the Quad City Mallards.
Still, after a season that started with optimism, Saturday was the final home game of the franchise's 10th season. The Rush fell to the Mallards 5-4 after a third period rally fell short, and the players gathered at center ice to thank fans for sticking through what coach Daniel Tetrault and captain Riley Weselowski admitted was a tough season.
"It’s been a challenging season as a team, for sure a rebuilding year," Tetrault said. "We have a lot of youth, but they always supported us, we’ve had some big crowds. It seems like most of the games where we had big crowds we won. Even in that third period (Saturday) they were cheering us on. No one quit on us, we never got booed after the second period (Saturday, when the Rush fell behind 5-1).They kept encouraging us and they were loud in the third and were one of the reasons we almost came back. You’ve got to thank the fans.
"They’re very supportive, very loud, it’s a great building to play in and next year should be a better year, that’s for sure."
Rapid City is 22-41-3-3 with a league low 50 points. It finished 15-19-1-1 at home this season, compared to 7-22-2-2 on the road. In 36 games at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, Rapid City averaged 3,053 fans per contest. That is 59.6 percent of the arena's capacity of 5,119.
Weselowski has been in Rapid City from the beginning, and he said this year has been particularly tough because of the optimism that surrounded a new affiliation with the National Hockey League's Minnesota Wild and a new coaching staff.
"When you have that optimism and the results aren’t there, it’s always a disappointment, and that can weigh on fans. The majority of our fans really stuck through with us this year and that really means a lot to us in the locker room," he said. "It really makes you want to turn this ship around for them and for everyone involved in the organization. When you have that loyal kind of fan and they show you that kind of support through thick and thin you really want to reward them for that, and hopefully in the not-so-distant future we can show them that."
With the hope of breaking the now three-year playoff drought dashed weeks ago, the focus for the Rush's season has been rebuilding for next season.
That process started earlier in the week when Tetrault made moves to acquire four players who had to make their Rapid City or professional debuts against the Mallards, and got two familiar faces back, as well.
Willem Nong-Lambert, Mitch Nardi, Aaron Boyd and Adam Marsh were added to the roster this week, with Jack Walker and Pavel Jenys being reassigned from the American Hockey League's Iowa Wild.
According to Tetrault, the focus of the final three games of the season will be to look at what talent the roster has, and who deserves a look next season. He also admitted that this year's version of the Rush were probably too inexperienced, and he'll need to add some more veteran leadership before the next opening day.
"It’s tough when you have 13 rookies who have never really played, but we did lose 15 one-goal games, that inexperience really showed," he said. "We’ll try to get a little more physical players next year, especially in our division. It’s been a learning process for (assistant coach) Nello (Ferrara) and I, we’re both new coaches, but the good news is we’re going to have a head start on recruiting. Last year we got hired a little late; we’ve started that process with the trades and the new guys we brought in."
Weselowski said he was impressed by how the players who were brought in played over the weekend.
"They come into a tough situation here and they played hard," he said. "You have to get down systems in a hurry, you’re going from playing against boys to playing against men overnight, that’s not an easy thing to do. They stepped in and were able to contribute and did everything that was asked of them."
He also said this season is possibly the toughest he has been a part of as a professional, because of the optimism that accompanied the start of the season.
Still, he said he is confident the Rush will be able to turn things around.
"I think we learned a lot this season as an organization and a coaching staff from the top to the bottom. There’s a lot of things that were learned this year, and hopefully that’s the positive we can take out of this, that we can figure it out," he said. "This summer is going to be very important with our recruiting. Our travel is very difficult, it's probably the most difficult in the league, so that makes it hard to recruit. We’re going to have to get older next year and hopefully that is a start.
"When this year is said and done there’s going to have to be a lot of things to be talked about and I’m very confident with the higher ups in this organization that they’re going to do well in the future."
The Rush take on the Mallards on the road Wednesday before travelling to Tulsa to take on the Oilers for two games to end the season.