The Rapid City Rush returned to the friendly confines of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center on Wednesday night after a tough weekend road trip during which they earned but one of six possible points.
While an early season series certainly can’t be deemed crucial, a three-game series against the Idaho Steelheads, one of the early season powerhouses in the ECHL, provided an excellent opportunity for the Rush to establish the team’s bona fides.
Done, and impressively so, as Rapid City used a huge first period and solid hockey and special teams play thereafter to post a 5-1 win over the visiting Steelheads.
“I thought we came out with a lot of speed and had shot mentality and had a lot of traffic,” Rush coach Daniel Tetrault said. “That was the goal because their goalie (Tomas Sholl) was the goalie of the month (1.67 goals allowed per game), so we wanted to play fast and get the puck on net and make things happen.”
Toward that end, the Rush came out flying dominating play throughout most of the frame and outshooting the Steelhead 13-7 in the period. Their speed and transition came led to a power play opportunity midway through the period and Rapid City quickly capitalized, courtesy when Alex Rauter jammed home a rebound of a Brennan Saulnier shot from the high slot via a backhander, far-post from a sharp angle. Tyler Poulsen earned an assist as well.
“I thought our transition was superb tonight,” Tetrault said. “They weren’t able to keep up with our speed. We have some guys who can really skate and it’s a skating game these days. The guys came out ready to play. They were really disappointed after the last road trip when we played extremely well and only game away with one point. The guys took that to heart and came out hard tonight like true professionals.”
Idaho had a chance to draw even seconds later when Rush defenseman Eric Israel drew a two-minute tripping penalty. Fortunately, a Rush penalty kill unit that has been outstanding in the first 10 games (86% success rate) not only foiled the Steelhead power play, but added a short-handed, unassisted goal as well.
Saulnier scooped up a deflected puck at center ice and on a breakaway went lit the lamp with a back-hander in the low slot to put the Rush up 2-0 at the 11:16 mark of the period.
“That was a good block by our guy to set me up,” Saulnier said. “I got a lucky bounce and went in alone and made sure the goalie was playing out and so I gave him a little shimmy and slid it in there.”
The Rush power play struck again early in the second period as the Rush went up 3-0 when Tyler Coulter tallied his 4th goal of the season wristing in a puck that had rebounded off the end boards. Peter Quenneville and Ryker Killins assisted on the score.
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The remaining minutes of the period was all Brennan Saulnier as the Rush newcomer completed a hat trick each time resulting from crashing the net and was rewarded by tossing the puck at the net. Saulnier’s second goal of the night came at the 14:37 mark of the period. And the third with but 23 seconds remaining in the period to put the Rush up 5-0 through two periods.
Quenneville, an assist machine so far this season with 10 assists in 11 games, picked up his second and third assists on the scores while Killins added a second.
“I thought we established a good cycle with the puck, and I was able to pick up a couple of easy ones there,” Saulnier said. “Quenneville has a really high hockey IQ and is really fun to play with. You know if you give the puck to a guy like that, you are going to get it back, so I just tried to find space and get my shot off.”
As expected from one of the ECHL’s top teams, the Idaho offense amped up the offense in the second and third period (outshooting the Rush 37-24 on the night), though Rapid City goalie Merrick Madsen was up to the task rejecting 36 of 37 shots faced on the night.
Idaho finally got on the board with 17:51 remaining on a Will Merchant goal, assisted by Marc-Olivier Roy and Diego Cuglietta.
Though dominated play in the final period, the Rush penalty kill unit, aided ably by Madsen, killed off six short-handed situations including four in the final period.
“I’ve been really impressed with the PK here. They work very hard blocking shots and do all the little things that don’t always show up in the box score,” said Madsen, who picked up his first win in a Rush uniform. “Those are the things that win hockey games, and I saw a lot of that tonight, which made my job a lot easier. I think we got off to the start we wanted to with a couple of goals early and that was a big momentum swing for us. Our identity particularly at home is outworking teams and we did that tonight.”
“A big win for us,” Tetrault added. “This is the toughest division in the whole league, and when you lose a couple you drop to third or fourth place. I call these games with division rivals four-point games and we knew Idaho was coming in here hot, and we didn’t back down.”
The Rush (6-3-2-0) and Steelheads (7-2-2-0) resume this week’s three-game series at the Rushmore Plaza Ice Arena on Friday with the puck scheduled to be dropped at 7:05 p.m.