The Rapid City Rush had good reason to feel a bit of worry at the thought of facing the Cincinnati Cyclones, the ECHL Central Division leader, making a first-ever appearance at Rushmore Plaza Ice Arena.
In mid-December, the Wheeling Nailers, fourth in the Central, came into Rapid and swept three games from the Rush on their initial visit.
Déjà vu maybe?
Two more games will tell, though Wednesday night’s outcome didn’t preclude that possibility as Cincinnati controlled the action throughout in skating to a 4-1 victory.
After an evenly played first eight minutes, the Rush opened the scoring (7:36) with a short-handed goal courtesy of some quick stick work by Darian Romanko. Poke-checking the puck free at center ice, the Shoreview, Minn., nativbe skated in uncontested and rifled the puck in off the far post. The unassisted goal was Romanko’s first of the season.
The Rush lead evaporated later in the period as Cincinnati scored twice within a 1:37 stretch. Pascal Aquin scored the first on a breakaway, and the second goal came when a shot from former Rush standout Jesse Schultz deflected off teammate Ben Johnson into the net.
“A good start and then a few mistakes at the end of the period really cost us,” Rush coach Danny Tetrault said. “They scored twice with less than four minutes to go when we were up 1-0, and after that it was kind of a sloppy game all the way around.”
The Rapid City power-play unit, dormant for the last month (1-of-49) before a two-goal outburst in Sunday’s win at Utah, fell back into a funk on Wednesday. Through two periods and four power-play chances, the Rush managed but one shot on goal, a situation resulting from off-tape passes and a pesky Cyclone penalty kill unit.
“We lost every draw,” Tetrault said, “and they utilized their speed and threw the puck down the ice and put pressure on us. And then we couldn’t make a pass or execute.”
And although Rapid City did manage even strength chances — 11 shots for each team in the period — few were Grade A chances as the Rush consistently looked a step slow in comparison to the Ohio visitors.
“The guys looked fatigued tonight,” Tetrault said. "We weren’t making tape-to-tape passes. I don’t want to use it as an excuse, but there was no jump tonight. Maybe it was the three games in less than three days against Utah and the travel, but we didn’t have any legs tonight.”
That sluggishness was never more evident than in the first 31 seconds of the third period. After winning the face-off to open the period, Cincinnati controlled the puck in the Rush zone and Cincinnati defenseman Justin Baudry skated in from the blue line and converted a back-hander to put the Cyclones up 3-1 lead with 19:29 remaining.
And although the Rush have mounted some exciting third-period comebacks this season, a solid Cincinnati defense, anchored by Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, third in the ECHL with 2.08 goals allowed average per game, proved too tough to crack as the Finnish net-minder stopped 25-of-26 shots on the night.
Desperate to close the gap, Tetrault pulled goalie Tyler Parks (28-of-31 saves) with 2:40 remaining for an extra attacker. Good scoring chances ensued — a back door chance by Keegan Howdeshell and a one-timer from the right face-off circle by Peter Quenneville. But only a Cincinnati open-netter by Nate Mitton with 4.5 seconds remaining resulted.
“We made a little push there in the third period after they made it 3-1, but we will be a lot better Friday. We will be more energized and learn from it,” Tetrault said. “Like I told the guys, we lost the first one in Utah and bounced back with two wins, and we can do the same here.”
Rapid City (19-13-3-0) and Cincinnati (22-8-6-0) continue the three-game series on Friday night (7:05).