The Thunder’s four power plays Friday were the only times it was certain Rapid City didn’t have an extra man on the ice.
The Rush played 60 minutes at a relentless pace and with a swarming defense that made it seem as if Wichita was at a near-constant disadvantage. The Thunder played Rapid City to a scoreless tie through two periods, but a Rush goal early in the third period led to its 3-0 win at Intrust Bank Arena.
Wichita’s offense never figured out an effective plan of attack against a Rush defense that hounded whomever possessed the puck and clogged passing and shooting lanes. Rapid City’s overwhelming presence killed the Thunder’s patience, and Wichita often had nothing to build upon offensively.
“They’re just a fast, young, skating hockey club that just works, works, works, works, works,” Thunder coach Kevin McClelland said of the Rush. “We thought we were going to play a pretty game – hang onto the puck and try to beat guys. We weren’t beating the first guy, we wanted to beat the second and third guy.
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“Not utilizing our linemates – we were trying to be too individual.”
The Thunder’s scoring chances, however limited, were built upon players desperately trying to create a play out of seemingly nothing, instead of waiting for something more promising to materialize.
Rapid City made it clear early that cashing in on promise was going to be difficult, if not impossible. The Rush had the speed to use its defensemen on the offensive attack while trusting them to fall back when the Thunder had the puck.
That approach meant that Wichita didn’t have the puck too often – the Thunder took six shots in the first period and seven in the second, needing a late barrage of three in the final minute of the second period to get even that many.
McClelland saw little value in an early go-ahead goal with the way the Thunder was playing.
“Not if our work ethic doesn’t start improving and we don’t start using each other out there,” McClelland said. “We’ve got guys that are supposed to go out there and do the job. There’s going to be some major moves and people are going to be surprised (Saturday) with the moves that are going to be made.”
The Thunder’s efforts to build momentum in the second period were mostly superficial – a fight between Wichita’s Dan Milan and J.P. Chabot brought temporary energy but led to nothing beyond an emotional lift.
Wichita also didn’t get anything out of its power plays against the fourth-best penalty killing unit in the ECHL. Stephen Schultz nearly scored an even-strength goal late in the third, but it was another instance of one player trying to create on his own.
That seemed to be the only way Wichita was going to score, since Rapid City was shadowing the Thunder’s top scorers and preventing more elaborate playmaking.
“If we get one there in the second, it’s a whole different game,” Schultz said. “Maybe they go back on their heels instead of us going on our heels. You’ve got to find a way to stay composed after you go down 1-0 and play well defensively in order to give our offense a chance to tie the game up.”
The Thunder appeared psychologically and physically deflated after Rapid City’s goal, and later the Rush scored two more within 34 seconds. That ruined the appearance of a closer game through 50 minutes, as well as Thunder goalie Tim Boron’s stat line.
Boron was the greatest factor in keeping the game scoreless through two periods, since Wichita took few shots and Rapid City kept the first line of the Thunder’s defense from slowing down the Rush.
“You want to get that first one, but we didn’t,” Schultz said. “We have a chance, after they go up 1-0, to establish ourselves and elevate our game and control what we can do out there. We failed to do that tonight.”
Scoring—None. Penalties—Rapid City, Schultz (boarding), 8:27; Wichita, Milan (roughing), 11:09.
Scoring—None. Penalties—Rapid City, Brannon (hooking), 1:33; Wichita, Wilson (hooking), 1:33; Wichita, Schultz (hooking), 1:48; Rapid City, Kostolansky (holding), 4:59; Rapid City, Weselowski (hooking), 8:50; Rapid City, Chabot (fighting major), 14:03; Wichita, Milan (fighting major), 14:03; Rapid City, Barczuk (unsportsmanlike conduct), 14:12; Wichita, Bourret (slashing), 14:12; Rapid City, McParland (too many men bench minor), 16:30.
Scoring—1. Rapid City, Faryna (Clarke), 1:50; 2. Rapid City, Oslanski (Schultz, Sides), 10:08; 3. Rapid City, Stroh (Brannon, Clarke), 10:32. Penalties—Wichita, Trebish (cross checking), 6:12; Wichita, Schultz (cross checking), 14:11.
Power play—Rapid City 0-4, Wichita 0-4. Shots—Rapid City 9-11-9—29, Wichita 6-7-10—23. Saves—Rapid City, Battochio 23-23; Wichita, Boron 26-29.