Two days shy of a year ago, the Rushmore Hockey Association varsity boys' hockey team lost the SDAHA state title game to Brookings in a game the Thunder controlled for the most part from beginning to end and simply couldn’t get a bounce to go their way.
It’s said in sports that bounces even out. If so, it took awhile on Saturday before Zach Bender rippled the cords off of a rebound to propel Rushmore to a 3-2 exciting overtime victory over Brookings in Saturday's semifinal game in Ft. Pierre.
Brookings was the two-time defending state champions.
“Ryan (Nolan) led the rush and shot the puck, and I just came in behind him and hit the rebound and it went over the goalie’s leg pad,” Bender said through an ever-present smile. “I’m still kind of shocked at what happened. It’s just amazing to come back from losing to them last year and then take them in the semifinals.”
For a very long time the game had the look of deja vu all over again as Rushmore, via excellent forechecking, lived in the Brookings zone for much of the night, out-shooting the Rangers 45-16 in the process.
“Yeah, it did a little bit,” Thunder coach Dick Novak admitted. “But you just have to keep grinding and working hard and we did that. To win a game like this in overtime against a really good team means a lot to this team, and to the association.”
After a scoreless first period, Brookings took advantage of a power play opportunity off a Jamison Honkomp deflection at the 3:17 mark of the second period.
Rushmore kept pounding the net and finally saw the effort rewarded when Derrick Brown picked up a loose puck on a power play and went high post from the left faceoff circle to beat Brookings' outstanding goalie Dylan Garaets (43 of 46 saves) to close out the second period scoring. Austin Stiles and Tanner Good earned assists on the tally.
It was Brown front and center again in the third period as the 16-year-old Douglas sophomore added an unassisted power play goal to give the Thunder a 2-1 Thunder lead with 12:20 remaining in the second period.
“On the first goal, I just got open and saw a great pass from my linemate and put it away. And the second goal there was a scrum around the net and I kept out of it and the puck squirted to me and I put it in,” Brown said.
After Rushmore failed to pad the lead on four power-play opportunities in the third period, Brookings tallied the equalizer with 7:19 remaining as Matthew Chapin slapped home a loose puck following a scramble in front of the net.
Though Rushmore continued to dominate play down the stretch — a 15-5 shots-on-goal advantage in the frame — Brookings did have a couple of good scoring chances late. But Thunder goalie John Young (13 of 15 saves with the Ranger goals coming off nearly unstoppable deflections) was Johnnie on the spot on each occasion.
“It's kind of hard when you only see 15 shots, five shots a period in the game,” Young said. “When you see that few shots it can be hard to stay focused, particularly when you know they are a very good team and can come at your at any moment. The end happened so quick, but I knew the overtime would be ours. We were constantly pounding the puck at the net in what was a really good overtime period for our team.”
Sometimes the outcome of a hockey game doesn’t doesn’t mirror the numbers in the shots on goal column. Saturday’s game clearly did as Rushmore outshot Brookings by a rather amazing total of 46-15, an advantage gained by solid forechecking throughout.
“That’s our game. When we are forechecking and getting after it like we did tonight, we really play good hockey,” Novak said. “Now we just need to get our rest tonight and come back and play the same type of game (Sunday). Get the puck in deep, get on them and force their defensemen to make plays and hopefully make a few mistakes.”
The victory catapults Rushmore into Sunday’s state title tilt (2:05 p.m. Mountain) versus Sioux Falls, which jumped up on Huron with three goals in the first two and a half minutes and went on to a 7-0 win in the other semifinal.
The Thunder will be looking for a little payback for the second night in a row as Sioux Falls pinned Rushmore with the team’s only loss of the season, an 8-3 late November win in Sioux Falls.
Though emotions were running skyhigh in the Thunder locker room following the big win on Saturday night, Novak expressed every confidence that his team would be ready on Sunday afternoon.
“Definitely. It’s a state championship game,” Novak said. “As I said when I saw we might have Brookings in the semifinals, do you ever have an easy game in a state semifinals? That’s the way it is. You play hard and then be ready to come back the next day and do it all over again.”