After a summer of changes, on and the ice and off, and a couple hard weeks of practice, it’s off with the pretend and on with the real this weekend as the Rapid City Rush journey to Texas for a Friday night face-off with the Allen Americans.
The season opener in Allen is the first contest in what will be a very busy weekend of hockey, as the Rush travel to Wichita on Saturday night (6:05 p.m. MT) and Tulsa Sunday afternoon (3:05 p.m.).
An affiliation with the NHL Arizona Coyotes signed over the summer, and the influx of new talent, has hopes soaring high in the Rush camp as the club looks to rebound from a 30-33-5-4 campaign last season.
“The talent pool we have compared to the previous four or five years is a lot better,” Rush coach Danny Tetrault said. “I have a lot more guys with AHL (American Hockey League) experience, and guys who have been proven at the ECHL level. And I don’t have as many rookies, and that makes a big difference. I have guys with talent and experience and that’s a great combination to have to start the season.”
Rush newcomers Giovanni Fiore, Jalen Smereck, and Dane Birks all have had look-sees at the AHL level, and will be joined by Rush returnees Taylor Crunk, Dexter Dancs, Alex Rauter, Richard Coyne, Chris Leibinger, Tyler Poulsen, Brandon Fehd, Josh Elmes, and goalie Tyler Parks, who will be between the posts in the season opener.
Final cuts were made over the weekend following last Saturday night’s Black and White scrimmage. And with the opening season roster largely in place, a hard week of practice led up to this weekend’s season opener.
“We accomplished a lot this week,” said Tetrault, who is entering his third season at the Rush helm. “We were going two hours a day since Monday, working on the line combinations and working on systems, and in the second half of practice working on face-offs and power play and penalty kills.
"It seems like the practices were a lot faster this week. Now that the roster is set, they really cleared their minds. Guys knew they had made the team and they could just focus on being relaxed and playing. And the guys got some chemistry going during the week. It’s important to accomplish that and we did, but now it’s game time on Friday, and the boys are anxious, that’s for sure.
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As an added bonus, the Rush were sent a couple of talented rookies, Ryker Killins and goalie Erik Kallgren from Tucson, who are valuable additions that should contribute immediately Tetrault said.
“They practiced with us the last couple days and will definitely help. Killins will improve the power play and is a puck-moving diesel, and Kallgren is a great goalie," he said.
Other rookies on the Rush opening day roster include Keegan Howdeshell, Tyler Coulter and Brennan Saulnier.
Though the Americans endured a down year last season, finishing seventh and last behind Rapid City in the ECHL’s Mountain Division of the Western Conference, Tetrault foresees a much more talented Allen squad taking the ice on Friday.
“They acquired a lot of new guys during the off-season, and they made some trades as well,” Tetrault said. “They now have an experienced team with a lot of American Hockey League experience, and will be a very good team compared to last year, that’s for sure.”
Though Rapid City will be on the road for the first two weekends of the season — the Rush open at home against the Utah Grizzlies Oct. 25 — the five-game stretch on the road may serve the club well according to Tetrault.
“I believe it’s a plus, actually. It’s a time for team bonding off the ice, and there is no pressure when you go on the road," he said. "Sometimes when teams open up at home, they feel the pressure that they have to win. And now we are just going to go down there, work hard and have some fun.”
Friday night’s game (6:05 p.m.) will be carried live on 920 AM and 104.7 FM, the flagship station for Rush hockey during the 2019-20 season.