A week after sitting on the bench while his team won, Evan Kirk returned to the Saskatchewan Rush net and made a statement.
Kirk’s 37-save effort was the difference as the Rush notched a crucial 9-7 win in a West Division showdown against the Colorado Mammoth.
The Rush brought an end to a three-game losing streak last Saturday with a victory in Vancouver that saw backup netminder Adam Shute between the pipes. Kirk was back on duty and managed the kind of performance that had been missing from his repertoire for much of the season.
“I was due for sure,” said Kirk. “They’ve got some good shooters and you’ve got to make those saves.”
“You need to win in this league in a variety of ways,” said Rush GM/head coach Derek Keenan. “Some nights it’s special teams, sometimes it’s the offence or transition. Tonight, it was defence and goaltending.
“We played a gritty game defensively. We challenged them and they rose to the occasion so I’m happy for that group.”
The Rush (5-4) held a 2-1 after the first quarter thanks to a shorthanded tally from Marty Dinsdale and the first of the three on the night for Jeff Shattler. Then the Kirk show took to the stage.
The veteran goalie made a spectacular stop to foil the Mammoth’s Joey Cupido on a breakaway and then flung himself across the crease to make the save on a quick-stick attempt by Jacob Ruest. Colorado (3-6) did knot the game 2-2, but the Rush responded with a rocket from Mark Matthews that beat Mammoth goalie Dillon Ward to the short side. Just 37 seconds later, Rush captain Chris Corbeil gave his team a two-goal lead, putting a rebound home after Ward failed to corral the loose ball.
Colorado closed the gap again on a power-play marker by Ryan Benesch only to see Matthews put away a quick-stick strike after a superb transition breakout and pass from Rush defenceman Kyle Rubisch to make it 5-3 with less than a minute to go in the first half.
In between power-play goals from Jeff Shattler and Ben McIntosh, Kirk stood tall again. Kirk blocked a close-in chance for Eli McLaughlin and then got his shoulder on an attempt from Ryan Lee.
McIntosh’s goal was a highlight-reel marker that pushed the Rush to a three-goal cushion. Robert Church spotted McIntosh behind the Colorado net and rifled a pass to the Rush’s leading scorer. McIntosh then went airborne and dunked a backhand shot behind Ward to make it 7-4.
Shattler posted his hat-trick tally early in the fourth quarter as his long-range shot found open space between Ward’s legs. The Mammoth weren’t about to fold, though, and they mounted a charge beginning with a power-play goal from McLaughlin. Goals by Ruest and Lee eventually got the Mammoth within one with five minutes to go, but Colorado couldn’t find the equalizer. The Mammoth’s final scoring threat was denied when Kirk turned aside a low shot from Ruest. Seconds later, Rush defenceman Brett Mydske put a stamp on the result with an empty-netter – the first goal of the season for the veteran who welcomed his first child just two weeks ago.
“It’s a good win anytime you can hold a team under 10 goals. It was a big defensive effort,” said Rubisch, who registered four loose balls and six caused turnovers.
“It was time for us to have a statement game and get our defence on the same page. And Kirkie stood on his head the entire game.”
The Rush continue a three-game home stand next Saturday when they host another edition of the Battle of the Prairies against the arch-rival Calgary Roughnecks. The Mammoth are on the road again next Saturday as they head out east to face the New England Black Wolves.