Rodrigue Sharp in Return as Thunder Stop Rush, 4-3
RAPID CITY, SD – Olivier Rodrigue returned to the Wichita Thunder on Friday evening and had a huge night for his team, stopping 39 shots to hold off the Rapid City Rush, 4-3. Wichita held a 4-1 lead only to see the Rush battle back to pull within one. However, Rodrigue stopped 15 shots in the final frame to preserve the victory. Cam Clarke, Peter Crinella, and Stephen Johnson each had a goal and assist for Wichita. Ryan Valentini had a goal and assist for Rapid City.
Wichita took the lead 6:41 into the contest. Crinella moved the puck ahead to Billy Exell just before he entered the Rapid City zone. Exell moved down the left side, lifting a wrist shot that hit off the mitt of Rush goaltender Lukas Parik and in for the fifth goal of the season for Exell.
Rapid City responded a little under two minutes later, as Valentini scored his eighth goal of the year to tie the score. Valentini stole the puck near the right face-off circle, then fired a shot that beat Rodrigue.
The Rush began to control the play following the goal, but slowly Wichita began to reassert themselves, re-taking the lead just after the 15-minute mark. With Rapid City on the power-play, Johnson used the forecheck to steal the puck inside the Rapid City zone, carrying the puck behind the net. With no other option, he banked a shot off the back of Parik and in for his sixth goal of the year, extending his point streak to seven straight games.
With 19 seconds left in the period, Crinella scored his 15th goal of the year to extend the lead to two. Once again, the forecheck created a turnover as Crinella stole the puck, then swept across the slot before lifting a backhander past the Rush netminder to make it 3-1.
The Thunder extended their lead to three at the 3:37 mark of the second period. Johnson carried the puck through the neutral zone on a 2-on-1 break, getting enough space between himself and the sliding Rush defenseman before passing the puck across the slot to Clarke who redirected itk past Parik for his fourth goal of the year.
That would be all for Parik, as Dillon Kelly came into the game and suddenly gave Rapid City a huge momentum change. After Kelly made three quick saves, Rapid City began to control play, scoring two goals over the final 11 minutes of the second period to pull within one. The first came at 9:18 when Callum Fryer passed the puck to Max Coatta in the slot, who lifted a wrist shot over the shoulder of Rodrigue.
A little over nine minutes later, Alec Butcher was fighting for a loose puck in front of the Wichita net. Alden Weller crept down from the slot, taking a feed from Butcher and putting it in for his second goal of the year.
The Thunder had been struggling with preserving leads through the third period, but not on this night. Rodrigue was spectacular over the final 20 minutes, staving off 15 shots to move to 2-1-0 in his three games with Wichita.
The victory moved Wichita to 6-0-1 in their last seven games. The Thunder (19-21-6) are within six points of Rapid City (22-19-6) for fourth place in the Mountain Division. These teams play again on Saturday evening, finishing out the three-game series. The puck drops at 8:05 Wichita time.
By Robert Pannier