KEARNEY – There aren’t any “must win” games in the ninth contest of a 62-game season.
But after a 1-5-1-1 start and having lost the two previous days, Tri-City faced a “really, really could use a win” game Sunday afternoon against Cedar Rapids.
The Storm got it.
Benji Eckerle raced up the left side of the ice, moved the puck to his backhand and scored against Cedar Rapids’ 6-foot-8 goaltender Shamil Shmakov for a shorthanded goal with 1:40 left. That helped Tri-City seal a 4-2 victory and snap a four-game losing streak.
“More than anything, for the work put in the week, you want to see these guys rewarded,” Storm coach Anthony Noreen said. “I thought if there was a game this season where the result was deserved, I thought top-to-bottom everyone pulled their weight. There were no passengers tonight. Everybody did their job, and it was good to see.”
Eckerle, a veteran center from Northville, Michigan, didn’t underplay the importance of the win.
“This is a desperation game for us,” he said. “We really needed this one, so to get it is massive. It’s huge going into next weekend.”
Veteran forward Ian Murphy, who assisted on Eckerle’s shorty, said the victory reaffirmed what the Storm thought of itself as a team.
“We’re going to believe in ourselves no matter what, and I think we have a really good team,” he said. “We all know that.
“But it feels good to be rewarded for all the hard work we’re putting in. We’re going to continue to get better every day.”
Cedar Rapids (5-2-0-0) lost for the second straight day and finished 0-for-3 on the power play. Eckerle blocked a shot to help set up his own insurance goal.
“(The puck) just kind of banged around in our zone and then it popped out right to me,” the Arizona State recruit said. “I was lucky enough to get into the rush there.
“There’s nothing like the nerves of bearing down on a goalie like that, but when it goes in it’s a huge relief and feels good.”
Noreen said it was a big series of plays by Eckerle in a pressure situation.
“Benji Eckerle is a guy who doesn’t get a lot of credit for the stuff that he does,” he said. “For him first to get a block and then have the legs and the will to skate down the ice and not just dump it down but put it in was huge.”
The Storm handed Shmakov – a native of Moskva, Russia, who was a 2018 seventh-round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche – his first loss. He entered the game 3-0-0-0 with a 1.00 goals against average and a .965 save percentage.
Tri-City didn’t get off to the kind of start that a struggling team needs to turn things around.
Darian Gotz gave the RoughRiders the lead 1:54 into the game.
That score came with the goal dislodged on the other end, but the officials determined that Storm forward Joe Molenaar had intentionally knocked it loose to disrupt play and allowed Cedar Rapids to continue up ice.
Colby Ambrosio pulled the Storm even at 7:59. He cut through the middle of the RoughRiders’ zone to get to the puck and unleashed a shot from the left circle past Shmakov.
That was only one of three shots on goal by Tri-City in the first period.
Cedar Rapids quickly regained momentum and a 2-1 lead when Mack Byers converted on a shorthanded breakaway at 9:45.
“Obviously it was a little fluky goal, the first one, and for us to respond back and get one was good,” Noreen said. “Then you give up a shorty against easily one of the best teams in the league and we could have let it get away from us.
“I felt we regrouped after the first (period) and probably came out and played our best period of the season in the second. Then we did what needed to be done in the third.”
Tri-City got a rare fortunate bounce to tie the game at 10:37 of the second. Matthew Knies’s shot went off teammate Nick Portz in front of the crease and into the net.
The Storm took the lead for good at 17:11 with a power-play goal. Mike Koster fed Felix Carenfelt in the right circle from the point, and Carenfelt fired a shot past Shmakov.
After its slow start, Tri-City outshot the RoughRiders 19-5 in the second period.
“I think we stuck with it,” said Murphy, a Princeton recruit from Scituate, Massachusetts. “I think (in Saturday’s loss to Sioux Falls) we had good energy and good juice. Little things were off and we weren’t clicking and scoring as many goals as we should have. Today we stuck with it, pucks ended up going into the net and we won the game.”
Tri-City hits the road the next two weekends for two-game series in Omaha and Fargo. The Storm returns home Nov. 8 for a weekend series against Dubuque. … The Storm and RoughRiders have split their two-game season series each of the past two years. The road team won both in 2017-18 while the home team swept in 2018-19. …Ambrosio leads the Storm with five goals and seven points.