The expansion Southern Conference playoff champion Allen Americans now know what it feels like to be felled by a tidal wave of momentum.
The host Amerks were on the receiving end of a Rapid City Rush-propelled surge that knocked them for a loop in Games 4 and 5 by respective scores of 4-2 and 7-2. As a result, the revitalized Rush took a three-games-to-two edge in the best-of-seven game series, and is one victory away from becoming the 4th Central Hockey League franchise to win the Ray Miron President’s Cup championship in only its second year of existence
“I’m disappointed, because that was the largest crowd of the year for us (more than 6,000 fans),” said Allen Head Coach Dwight Mullins. “But this is our 80th game of the season, so you run the risk of that happening. But we are a proven team, and no one has told us to go home yet. When the puck drops for Game 6, we will be ready. Our objective is clearly defined now and we’ve responded well in those situations previously. We have a good record in Rapid City and we’ll look to build on that”
Game 6 and – if necessary — Game 7 will be played on Tuesday (7:35 p.m. CDT) and Friday (8:05 p.m. CDT), May 4 and 7, respectively, at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center Ice Arena in Rapid City, South Dakota.
At the conclusion of Game 5, the Americans’ players saluted their fans by tossing team shirts into the crowd. After shedding their pads and skates a few minutes later, each player, clad in his game jersey, willingly signed autographs in the main lobby of the Allen Event Center as a token of appreciation for their supporters’ steadfast loyalty.
The gesture provided a warm, reassuring conclusion to a very tough 28-hour period of frustrating hockey for the Amerks and their followers. On Friday night before more than 5600 fans, the Amerks used a five-on-three man advantage to took a 2-0 lead on goals by forwards Justin Bowers and Bruce Graham in the game’s first three minutes. However, the Rush found a way to clog the passing lanes in the neutral zone, which slowed and in some cases totally negated Allen’s open ice attack.
Having seized territorial control of the contest, the Rush finally solved Allen goalie Chris Whitley midway through the 2nd period, as Derek LeBlanc, Brendon Hodge and Les Reaney scored in an eight-minute span to give the visitors a 3-2 lead. “I thought we had three legitimate chances to make it 3-0 early in the 2nd period, but we didn’t bear down and bury the puck,” said Mullins, who somehow maintained his composure despite his anger at the officiating crew. “Then they got a goal on a long shift, and the momentum totally shifted (in Rapid City’s favor).”
After referee Ryan Hersey added a Mike Salekin unsportsmanlike penalty to a questionable Nino Musitelli interference penalty that put Allen two men down midway through the 3rd period, Rush forward Jon Pelle chipped one over Whitley to make it 4-2. “I’m extremely disappointed because even though we have submitted requests to the league on a situation that has been occurring several times over the course of the season, I guess they refused to take me seriously. Unfortunately, we were put in a situation (Salekin’s penalty) that kind of took us out of the hockey game. This isn’t a regular season game. We’re in the finals here and you have two teams that have clawed and scratched their way (to this point). It’s about the players, and it’s disappointing.
“You go back to January,” Mullins went on, “and you look at the times that (Hersey) did games and the times that we’ve played, we have gotten minor penalties called by linesmen in every single game. If you look in the playoffs, even in the last three, we have had minor penalties called by somebody other than the referee. And it isn’t anybody else.”
Allen was assessed 70 minutes on 16 penalties, while Rapid City finished the game with 33 minutes on 11 infractions. Whitley made 35 saves, while Danny Battochio stopped 27 shots.
In Saturday night’s Game 5, Rapid City took a quick 2-0 on strange goals by Derek Campbell and Reaney. Campbell made it 1-0 when he slapped at a puck during a scrum, and it slithered between Whitley and the near post. Reaney made it 2-0 when he knocked in a puck that had slithered through the goalie after a point drive by Brendan Cook.
“Hockey;s a funny sport,” said Allen team captain Jarret Lukin. “That’s why we play…you can never predict what’s going to happen. I think if you look at the first goal….. even the second one, and you say ‘what do you do?’ Chris has been the best goalie in the league and things (still) happen. Lucky for us, it’s not an elimination game, and I know that he will be ready to play his best when we get to Rapid City.”
“Chris has been there for us all year, and this wasn’t the kind of night he wanted to have,” Mullins said in reference to Whitley, who has set single season post season league records for minutes played (1,106), appearances (19) and saves (546). “He’ll be back in there for us.”
Allen rebounded to tie the score, 2-2 before the end of the period. Bowers rifled a wrist shot over Battochio’s left shoulder midway through the period to make it 2-1, extending his point streak to 11 games and notching his 30th post season point, just two shy of the CHL record set in 2007 by Colorado’s Greg Pankewicz. Winger Colton Yellow Horn’s power play marker tied the score, 2-2, his 7th goal in the last six games that gives Allen three players who have reached double digits in post season goals.
Rapid City responded by erupting for three more goals and a 5-2 lead in the 2nd period. The back-breaker was a one-timer by Cook off a smart feed from Campbell. “(That) was their best goal of the night,” said Mullins. “They worked hard and took advantage of our turnovers in the defensive zone, and also did a great job in our zone breaking down our coverage.”
“(Campbell) came out of the corner on a real nice cycle,” Rush Head Coach Joe Ferras told the Rapid City Journal. “I think the goalie thought he was going to shoot, but he threw it to (Cook) on the back door, and — great goal. “Huge game from ‘Soupy’ tonight. Huge.”
“We’re extremely pleased with how we played tonight and to come out of here with a win and control of the series,” Cook told the Rapid City Journal. “We don’t want to get too high. We want to stay focused and come out raring to go Tuesday night.”
Cook extended the lead to 4-2 a few minutes later and — after Reaney made it 5-2 late in the 2nd — greeted Americans backup goalie David McKee with his 3rd goal of the night early in the 3rd session. LeBlanc finished the game’s scoring several minutes later. Rapid City’s Battochio stopped 24-of-26 shots for his 11th win of the playoffs
“(The Rapid City rink) is a tough building to play in, but all the games we’d had there this year, we’ve had a chance to win,” said Lukin in anticipation of Game 6, which can be viewed on CHL TV by linking through www.centralhockeyleague.com or heard as described by Americans play-by-play announcer Tommy Daniels on www.sportsjuice.com. “We are confident in that building, and have gained more confidence through the Game 7 victory (in Odessa). Hopefully, we can use that to our advantage.
“(Allen) is truly an amazing place to play,” he added as a salute to the fans. “Hats off to all the people involved here, the fans, you can just see the way they showed up for us tonight, our last home game. I feel sorry, and I speak on behalf of the team, that we didn’t have a better outcome, but this thing’s not over and we’re going to try our best for the fans here – they deserve it.”
“We’ve been through this before,” said Mullins, referring to Allen’s inability to finish off Odessa at home and being extended to a 7th game on foreign ice before advancing to the Finals. “Look, our future is definitely defined for us in that we know we can’t clinch (the title) on home ice. So we can just focus on what we need to do. I hope the next time we (the media and the coach) meet, it’s to celebrate our (championship) parade.”