Steelheads take home opener with thrilling OT win over Bulls

clangrill@idahostatesman.comOctober 24, 2013 

Every new ECHL season brings new hockey players to the ice, new numbers for fans to memorize.

All that newness produces first impressions, but first let's cut to the chase: Idaho won its home opener Wednesday night, defeating San Francisco 3-2 in the Bulls' only scheduled appearance at CenturyLinkArena this season.

Forward Anthony Nigro made his home debut a memorable one. The fourth-year pro tied the score with 18.6 seconds remaining in regulation, then scored the game-winner 1:52 into the extra period.

"Dramatic, huh?" Steelheads coach Brad Ralph said. "It was a great win for us. We battled so hard. … We learned how to win tonight."

Now about those first impressions:

• Who in the world would want to fight Steelheads enforcer Jeremy Yablonski? (More on that later)

• Forward Justin Mercier looked like a heady player who was all over the ice, with four shots on goal and a couple of legitimate scoring opportunities. No wonder Ralph made him the team captain Tuesday.

• Forward William Rapuzzi is looking more like a wily veteran than a baby-faced rookie two games into the season. He leads Idaho with four points (1 goal, 3 assists).

• Steelheads fans should probably plan on sticking around until the end of the games, if the first one is any indication.

"It was nice to have a game like that," said Nigro, who also had an assist for a three-point night. "I had a couple goals, I had a fight. I think that was my first pro fight. I think it's great to show the fans what kind of player I am."

Through the first two periods, it was a pair of familiar faces who made the biggest impression.

On Idaho's side of the ice was goalie Josh Robinson, the Steelheads' MVP last season. In the other net was goalie Tyler Beskorowany, who has played in 58 Steelheads games but is now with San Francisco.

The two former teammates battled like prizefighters going toe-to-toe as they stopped the first 46 shots they faced to keep their teams in the game.

"It was fun," Robinson said. "We're used to watching each other every day in practice, and it wasn't any different than that. … It was kind of fitting how it ended, 3-2 overtime game. You can't get much closer than that."

The two goalies kept the game scoreless for 41 minutes, 25 seconds. That's when Rapuzzi broke through for his first goal as a professional. Rapuzzi notched assists on both of Idaho's goals in its season-opening 4-2 loss at Utah. He also made a diving pass for the assist on the game-winner Wednesday.

"From day one, he's been one of the hardest workers on our team," Ralph said. "That goes a long way at this level."

One of the questions coming into the season was how many players in the ECHL would be willing to tangle with Yablonski. The 33-year-old's toughness and fighting skills have allowed him to have a long hockey career that has taken him from the ECHL to the AHL to Russia and even to the NHL for one game.

That question was answered 8 minutes, 43 seconds into Yablonski's first game when San Francisco's Riley Emmerson dropped the gloves.

The two went at it for a while, but the end result wasn't nearly as dramatic as the outcome of the game itself.

"Everyone came to play," Ralph said. "That win was exactly what this team needed."

NOTES: Defenseman Patrick Cullity and forward Tommy Grant served as Idaho's alternate captains. … Robinson turned away 34-of-36 shots, while Beskorowany finished with 39 saves on 42 shots. … Mitch Wahl had two assists for Idaho. … The announced attendance was 4,146. ... The Steelheads play Friday and Saturday at the Colorado Eagles. Their next home game is Nov. 1 against the Ontario Reign.

Chris Langrill: 377-6424

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