After a six game road trip where the team went 1-4-1, the Wichita Thunder returned home to the friendly confines of INTRUST Bank Arena where they were 15-8-2 entering their contest against the Rapid City Rush. Thanks to two goals by Ralph Cuddemi and 27 saves by Shane Starrett, the Thunder were able to win No. 16 at home in the 3-1 victory, giving them two consecutive victories for the first time in nearly a month.
The Wichita Thunder would take the lead a little less than five minutes into the game. Etienne Boutet carried the puck into the Rapid City end and fired a shot on net that deflected toward the corner. Travis Ewanyk gained control of the puck passed to the center, where it hit off the shin guard of Chad Butcher and into the net for his seventh goal of the year.
The lead did not last long, as the Rush tied it just 59 seconds later. Dante Salituro passed the puck to Daniel Leavens who was streaking down the slot toward the goal. He redirected the puck in for his 10th goal of the year and the game was knotted at one.
With 1:55 left in the first and Rapid City on the power-play, the puck came right to Kenton Miller standing alone to the right of Thunder goalie Shane Starrett. He fired a shot from his backhand, but Starrett made a great pad save to keep it tied.
Wichita had their chance to retake the lead with just a few seconds left in the period. With the draw in Rush territory, a quick shot left a rebound loose in front of the net. Jon Puskar skated hard to try to knock the loose puck in, but Rapid City Steve Michalek was able to cover it with his body as the horn sounded to end the frame.
The Wichita Thunder had dominated the first period, outshooting Rapid City 17-7, and they came out in the second putting the pressure on right away. That paid off when they retook the lead 21 seconds into the second period. Nick Latta passed the puck across the crease to Ralph Cuddemi, who fired a wrist shot past Michalek for his 17th goal of the year, tops on the team.
At the 6:20 mark, the Rush had a great scoring chance. Salituro received a pass at the top of the slot and moved in on a breakaway. He went to the forehand, but Starrett came up with another great kick save.
At 8:47 of the second, Cuddemi would put in his second goal of the game. A bad giveaway gave the Thunder the puck in the Rapid City end. Puskar passed the puck to Cuddemi, who moved in and fired a shot past the blocker of Michalek. That made it 3-1, and was the first point for Puskar since joining Wichita.
The Thunder took a penalty early in the second, and they had three great scoring chances that could have easily cut the deficit in half. However, Starrett made two great saves to keep his team on top by two.
With about eight minutes gone in the third, the Thunder nearly made this a three goal lead. Lane Bauer carried the puck in on net and as he came within about three feet of the goal, passed the puck across to Travis Brown who was coming down the slot on the other side of the goal. Brown tipped the puck but just wide of the post, narrowly missing a goal by a few inches.
Rapid City was able to score at 12:25 of the third, but the goal was waved off after the referee ruled that the Rush had made incidental contact with the Thunder goalie.
Wichita had numerous scoring opportunities in this game, but Michalek came up big on a number of occasions, with the biggest coming with about seven minutes left in the game. Latta came in on a breakaway but his chance was robbed on a great glove save by the Rush goalie. The puck was loose, and Kevin Dufour corralled it and fired a shot to the other side of the goal, but Michalek make a great save with his blocker, denying the Thunder again.
Ralph Cuddemi finished with two goals for the Wichita Thunder, his fifth game this season with at least two goals. Shane Starrett earned his 16th win of the season, making 27 saves. Steve Michalek took the loss, but he was brilliant in the net, making 49 saves.
These same two teams will meet again tomorrow night in the second of a three-game set. The puck drops at 7:05.
Featured image by Ed Bailey
By Robert Pannier