RAPID CITY, S.D. – Forward Ryan Menei is a dangerous offensive player – he had 39 goals in the regular season – and the Komets couldn't contain him Friday night.
Menei had a hat trick for the CHL-champion Rapid City Rush in a 5-2 Game 1 victory in the best-of-five Turner Conference semifinals, in front of 3,994 fans at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.
Game 2 is tonight at the same venue.
The Komets, seeded sixth in the conference, swept their first-round series with third-seeded Bloomington and trailed only 10 minutes, 26 seconds of that series, and only after they had a two-game lead.
It was clear early in Friday's game – between champions of the CHL and the IHL – that this would be a much different series.
After the Komets failed to score on two good early chances – Sean O'Connor had a wraparound and Derek Patrosso hit the post on a 2-on-1 rush – the top-seeded Rush took control.
Bad penalties didn't help the Komets' cause.
"I thought we came out and played really well," Komets coach Al Sims said. "We took it to them in the first part of the game and then we got into penalty trouble. We took some bad, bad penalties in the neutral zone, slashing from (O'Connor) and Tab Lardner slashing a guy for no reason in the neutral zone. We were the ones getting caught all night, so they played smarter than we did."
The Rush scored on 2 of 9 power plays, while Fort Wayne was 1 for 5.
Defenseman Dustin Molle was in the penalty box for tripping, when Rush center Les Reaney shot the puck from the right circle and goaltender Nick Boucher lost track of it between his legs. Forward Colt King battled into the crease and poked the puck in for a 1-0 lead at 8:23 of the first period.
On the Rush's next shot, forward Konrad Reeder was left completely unattended in front of the Fort Wayne net, and he screened Boucher as a weak Menei shot went underneath Boucher at12:01.
With Fort Wayne forward Tab Lardner in the box for hooking, a tic-tac-toe passing play dizzied the Komets and left Menei alone in front to take a shot and put his own rebound past Boucher for a 3-0 lead at 19:28.
"We've got to stay out of the box and when we do get penalties, we've got to kill the (expletive) things," said center Colin Chaulk, who had both Fort Wayne goals. "In the Bloomington series, we were at (93.8) percent. Sure it's a different series, and I'm not talking about the past, but obviously their special teams were the difference tonight. In the second period, we took it to them. We had a lot of chances and it could have been 3-3."
Chaulk thought he had scored 25 seconds into the second period, until referee Jon McIsaac negated it because Patrosso had interfered with the goaltender Danny Battochio. Chaulk got some redemption less than three minutes later, when his pass out of the defensive zone set off a 3-on-1 rush that he finished by sweeping the puck just inside the right goalpost.
"They don't quit. They've won three championships and they know how to win," Rush coach Joe Ferras said of the Komets. "We worked 66 games (in the regular season) to get home-ice advantage, and you've got to come out ready to go. … But in the second period, they reversed the whole thing and were all over us in the second. Fortunately, Danny did his job on our side. But it's only one win and all it means is the series could go four now (if Fort Wayne comes back). We're only going to enjoy it for 20 minutes and then get ready to go because we know they're coming harder (in Game 2)."
Even though the Komets got eight of the first 11 shots in the second period, Battochio preserved the 3-1 Rush lead. His best thwart came against left wing P.C. Drouin, who was alone in front at 16:45.
A scrum in front of the Fort Wayne net gave the Komets a power play early in the third period, but they repeatedly had trouble getting control of the bouncing puck on the soft ice, and Menei got out of the box to finish off a 2-on-1 rush for a 4-1 lead, and his hat trick, at 5:05.
"It's easy to be disciplined when you're up 4-1," Ferras said, when asked about the difference in penalties. "They're going to try to take chances and they're going to try to take liberties and set the tone (for Game 2). We like that. We love the physical part of the game and have guys who salivate for that. These are two teams that play hard-nosed, blue-collar hockey, and with the way these teams play, it's fun to watch."
Chaulk scored with the goalie pulled and a 5-on-3 advantage at 16:07. Drouin's shot from 35 feet out ricocheted off the knee of Chaulk, who was in the air at the time. But the Rush's Dave Grimson cemented the victory with an empty-net goal at 18:01.
Komets alternate captain Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock had to be helped off the ice, with only one skate on, late in the third period. Sims said he had a cut on his foot and it's unknown if he'll be available for Game 2. If he's not, that will likely spell the professional debut of Tom Mele, who had 10 goals and 19 points in 33 games at American International this season.
Boucher stopped 21 of 25 shots. Battochio stopped 20 of 22.