After a series of dismal seasons during which Rapid City Rush losses were frequent and ECHL playoff hopes gone by mid-winter, numerous changes on and off the ice this summer have led to lofty expectations heading into the 2019-20 season.
Perhaps no one was more effusive in extolling the virtues of this year’s team than Rush third-year head coach Danny Tetrault.
And given the Rapid City performance during the first two weeks of the season, the confidence Tetrault expressed on the very first day of pre-season practice would seem to have merit as the Rush comes into Friday night’s initial home ice appearance sporting a 3-1-1-0 record.
“I could see the skill level was outstanding right away,” Tetrault said. “You have to have the horses. We worked hard last year and we had kids who really cared, but the talent level just wasn’t there. But this year I have guys who can make things happen. We were able to get a guy like (Giovani) Fiore here (four goals and five assists in first five games), Peter Quenneville (three goals, five assists) and have become a team that can score at any time.”
Typically undone last season by an inability to put the puck in the net, the Rush prioritized seeking speed in the offseason and, based upon early returns, did just that.
“We knew we had to find guys who could skate,” Tetrault said following a Wednesday morning practice. “I know that (Arizona) Coyotes, the Rush’s NHL parent club, and Tucson play fast, so that was part of the recruiting process this summer to get guys who could really skate. The game has really changed and speed puts a lot of pressure on the opposition. In this game, speed kills, and we have it this year.”
Rush returnee, Cedric Montminy, noted the improvement from last year’s squad in talent level as well.
“We have a lot of power upfront and a lot of skills guys this year,” said Montminy, who has been selected as an assistant captain along with fellow returnee, Josh Elmes, and newcomer Quenneville. “Last year, everybody was battling every night, but we had trouble putting the puck behind the net. But this year I think we’ve solved that problem and that’s what we are excited about. We are going to score a lot of goals and carry on the mentality of working hard from last year.”
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Montminy, a 20-goal scorer last season, has contributed to the Rush power surge adding a goal and three assists while sharing the ice with line-mate Quenneville who has returned to the U.S. after playing hockey in Europe for the last three years.
“One of the first things I noticed was that we had a great group of individuals, a lot of character guys and a lot of good energy,” Quenneville said. “Also, with the relationship with Tucson and Arizona getting some of those guys coming to us has added to the talent pool. And with Coach and the returning guys, I was excited right away to see a good roster.”
A test of the improvement in talent level came quickly as the Rush opened the season with back-to-back weekends on the road. And a season opening loss to Allen in overtime followed by another setback to Wichita on the following night.
The third game of the season in Tulsa on Sunday was gut check time for the Rush lest the new season quickly become an unpleasant reminder of recent seasons past.
“The optimism was still there because we knew we were playing well and could have won both games,” Tetrault said. “But what a character win on that Sunday, though. I knew I had hard workers who were really frustrated with the two losses and I knew they were going to come out strong and they did with the 5-3 win there and carried that on to the next weekend.”
And hopefully this weekend as well as Rapid City opens the home season at the Rushmore Plaza Ice Arena hosting the Utah Grizzlies (2-2-1-0) on Friday and Saturday nights (7:05).
The opening contest on Friday night will feature a plethora of pre-game festivities, including a tailgate party in Rushmore Hall featuring food and live music (4:30-6:30 p.m.) and a 10th anniversary celebration of the 2010 CHL Ray Miron President’s Cup championship team.