The Wichita Thunder were looking to add a little more breathing room between themselves and those chasing them in the playoff race, and thanks to three unanswered goals they skated away with a 3-1 victory over the Rapid City Rush, which moved them four points ahead of the Allen Americans, Kalamazoo Wings, and Cincinnati Cyclones. Nick Riopel earned his first win in a Thunder uniform, stopping 30 shots and Guillaume Lepine had 2 goals. Jon Puskar also continues to be a physical force for Wichita, while adding in a goal and an assist.
The first big opportunity for either team to get on the board came at the 10:30 mark of the first. Mark MacMillan intercepted a pass and broke out with Kevin Patterson on a two-on-one. As he came within three feet of Rapid City goalie Christian Frey, he passed to Patterson who looked to tip the puck into the goal, but it was hard to get a handle on the bouncing puck and it went wide.
A minute later, the Thunder were pressuring inside the Rush end when Travis Ewanyk stole the puck and passed it across to MacMillan who was standing alone at the right post, but Frey quickly slid across the crease and made a great save to keep the game scoreless.
Thunder goalie Nick Riopel made a highlight save of his own with under four minutes left in the first. Tyler Deresky gained control of the puck near the goal line and sped out in front of the Wichita net, getting Riopel down on his belly near the right side of the net. He fired a wrist shot up high, but the Thunder goalie made an unbelievable glove save from his belly.
With 1:37 left in the first, Rapid City took the lead. Daniel Leavens fired a shot from the point that Riopel saved, but he could not control it in his glove. The Thunder did not clear away Andrew Miller, who put the rebound into the back of the net for his second goal of the season.
The Thunder would finally tie the score at the 12:48 mark in the second period. Jon Puskar passed the puck back to the point to Guillaume Lepine, who blasted a low slap shot to the far side post and into the net for his second goal of the year.
Fifty three seconds into the third, the Rapid City Rush had a golden chance. Tyler Deresky carried the puck into the Thunder end on a two-on-one. He opted to keep the puck, firing a shot up high, but Riopel made a great glove save to keep it tied.
The third period was a back and forth affair, but neither team was able to get the advantage. That is until Puskar scored his first goal since joining the Thunder with 3:32 left in the game. Ken Patterson fired a shot that was blocked, but Ralph Cuddemi gained control of the puck and fired it on net. Frey made a nice save, but Puskar came swooping around the net, getting the rebound and putting it in for his 13th goal of the year.
The Thunder added an empty net goal with 53.5 seconds left in the game. Riopel passed to Lepine who buried the 120 foot shot for his second goal of the game.
Nick Riopel was impressive in his second start for the Thunder, stopping 30 shots. Jon Puskar had a goal and an assist, and Guillaume Lepine had 2 goals. Christian Frey was equally as impressive for Rapid City, stopping 26 shots.
After the game, Thunder Head Coach Malcolm Cameron talked about the acquisition of Puskar. “He stepped right in like he’d been here five years, and the guys welcomed that. The thing I like about him is that he is not afraid to ruffle any feathers, and he plays the game one way and one way only, and it’s if you’re not going to play it that way, get out of my way. The guys responded to that.”
The victory was the third in a row for the Wichita Thunder and their fourth straight against the Rush. These two teams will square off again tomorrow, as Wichita goes for the sweep. Game time is scheduled for 4:05.
By Robert Pannier