SERIES PREVIEW: One Last Rush

The Steelheads continue their home stand this week with their final three meetings of the season with the Rapid City Rush. The Steelheads face the Rush more than any other team in 2016-17 and they’ve been making the most of those meetings, going 7-3-0 thus far against Rapid City and winning their last five in a row over the Rush. Wednesday night will mark the Rush’s first game at CenturyLink Arena since December 17th.

The Steelheads are coming off a two-game split with the Cincinnati Cyclones and have won ten of their past 13 contests. The Rush split two games with the Alaska Aces, a slight recovery after suffering a sweep at the hands of the Steelheads in Rapid City to open the month of March.

The Steelheads and Rush played three close games a few weeks back, with the Steelheads taking the series opener with a 1-0 shutout and then going on to earn third-period comeback wins in the series’ final two contests. That included a two-goal outing by Brian Nugent in the series finale. Nugent hasn’t slowed down, now with six goals and eight points in his past nine contests.

Linemates Jefferson Dahl and Rob Linsmayer have also picked up the scoring pace. Dahl has goals in back-to-back games and carries a four-game points streak into the series, as well as three goals and seven points in his last seven games. Linsmayer had a two-assist game against the Cyclones on Saturday, giving him three goals and nine points in his last seven outings.

Joe Faust has gotten a lot of attention on the blue line this season, but there are other blue liners producing offensively for Idaho. The Steelheads got three goals from defensemen in their last game, the last one coming from Aaron Harstad. Harstad has been as advertised since coming over from the Norfolk Admirals in February, notching two goals and seven points in eight games since joining the Steelheads, along with a plus-seven rating.

The Rush have seen many of their top point-producers come and go this season, whether through call-ups or changes in the team’s directions. Scoring threats like Lindsay Sparks, Brenden Walker, Josh MacDonald, and Brett Perlini have all changed addresses this year, leaving a difficult void for the Rush to fill as they try to climb out of a 17 point hole separating them from a playoff spot.

Captain Ryan Walters has remained a threat for Rapid City, grabbing goals in three straight contests to improve his points total to a career-best 60 points in 60 games. Hunter Fejes and Mark Cooper were both supporting the offense, with Fejes grabbing 19 points in a span of 12 games from February 3rd to February 27th and Cooper earning 16 points over that same stretch. Both players have gone cold recently, however, with both held off the sheet for five straight contests.

Goaltending grabbed the headlines the last time these teams met, with Landon Bow earning a shutout and Branden Komm grabbing a 37-save win, while Rapid City’s Adam Morrison gave up just six goals across three games and had nothing to show for it. Morrison has a 2.25 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage in his last five starts, but carries a 1-4-0 record over that span.

STEELHEAD TO WATCH

Jefferson Dahl has already set a career-high with 54 points, recording five more than last season and in 11 fewer games. While Dahl has been a consistent playmaker throughout the season, his goal-scoring knack has come back to life in the past three weeks. Dahl scored the first Steelheads goal on Friday and Saturday, one on a rebound in the crease and the other by driving to the net on an odd-man rush. With Will Merchant absent from Saturday’s lineup, Dahl was still able to get to the net, creating opportunities but also space for Rob Linsmayer to move the puck around. Dahl has eight points against the Rush this season.

RUSH TO WATCH

Logan Nelson is a big body that can make a difference for the Rush when he’s winning battles in front of the net. The former Buffalo Sabres draft pick enters the series with three goals and six points in Rapid City’s last seven games, doing a lot of that damage on deflections and rebounds in front of the net and on the power play. Nelson’s numbers might be a bit stronger if he finished on more of his opportunities, as the third-year pro missed several open nets the last time these teams met and was also the victim of a sprawling Branden Komm save. Nelson has earned 21 of his 29 points in the past 29 games since joining the Rush from Wichita.

KEY MATCHUP

The Steelheads have come from behind to earn their last three victories, two of which have come against the Rush. The Steelheads have to be happy with their five-goal outburst on Saturday, but they’ll be prepared for more tight contests against a scrappy Rush team. Winning the third period battles will go a long way for Idaho, and the Rush have been outscored by 26 goals in third periods this season. The wear and tear on Adam Morrison late in games could be a factor as well, assuming Rush Head Coach Mark DeSantis continues to use his goaltender at the same rate. Morrison has made 11 consecutive starts for the Rush, and the Steelheads can put pressure on him late in games if they continue to find that second gear.