By the time the emotion from a fancy pregame ceremony wore off, the Thunder was losing to Evansville and in need of regaining energy.
The lift Wichita got from seeing banners dropped and a former star’s jersey retired didn’t last forever, and it couldn’t find that level of enthusiasm again after the initial spark went away.
Evansville exploited Wichita’s dropoff, scoring two goals in the second period and carrying them to a 3-1 lead at Intrust Bank Arena. After a four-game winning streak, Wichita dropped the final two regular-season home games.
After completing the regular season on the road today, the Thunders begin the playoffs as the top seed in the Berry Conference at home on Friday. Winner of the CHL Governor’s Cup with the league’s best record, Wichita has home ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
That didn’t help on Saturday, though. After banners signifying this season’s accomplishments were dropped, season awards were given and Travis Clayton’s jersey was retired, Wichita delivered a mostly listless performance.
"It was good to get all the awards done and see the banners drop and everything, but we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves," Thunder forward Matt Robinson said. "We did come out (strong), but after the first goal there we were sitting back. We made a couple mistakes and they capitalized."
Wichita is in self-preservation mode entering the postseason. It was without four players Saturday because of injuries and a suspension. Alex Bourret, who fought with Allen’s Jim McKenzie on Friday and who has three game misconduct ejections in his last three games, was suspended for the final two games of the regular season.
Out with injuries are Kevin Seibel, Francis Trudel and Aaron Davis. Wichita has to trim its roster from 21 players to 19 before the postseason, but coach Kevin McClelland said that will be a difficult task with the team’s collective health in question.
"Hopefully we’ve got 19 to put on the roster," McClelland said.
Though there has been nothing to play for since the Thunder clinched home ice last week, some of Wichita’s trends during the last two games could be signs of concern. For example, Wichita has gone 0 for 11 on power plays while allowing four power-play goals.
"Our power play this year has been a roller coaster," Robinson said. "There have been times where it’s absolutely terrible and other times where we’re clicking on all cylinders. I think, in the playoffs, power play and penalty killing is huge."
The Thunder has shown an ability to adapt to different styles, and Saturday’s game was an indication of how postseason games could unfold. Neither team could find much offensive rhythm, both played physically and mistakes were magnified.
"Playoffs is just a whole other level, a whole other animal," Robinson said. "You’re going to have some of those games where you blow a team out, but most of the time, it’s very tight-checking, low-scoring game."
Notes — The Thunder handed out its end-of-season awards to the following players: Travis Wight (community service), Chris Chappell (most improved), Dustin Donaghy (glass rattler), RG Flath (unsung hero), Travis Wight (top defenseman) and Robinson (MVP).… Clayton became the fifth Thunder player to have his number retired, joining Ron Handy, Rob Weingartner, Bobby Desjardins and former linemate Jason Duda. Clayton ranks second all-time in the CHL in goals, assists and points. He’s the league’s career leader in games.
Scoring—1. Wichita, Robinson (Chappell, Summers), 9:16. Penalties—Evansville, Boisclair (tripping), 5:31; Wichita, Flath (tripping), 10:26; Wichita, Tetrault (clipping), 13:24; Evansville, Makway (roughing, fighting major), 15:16; Wichita, Donaghy (fighting major), 15:16.
Scoring—2. Evansville, Plante PP (Robinson, Lindberg), 2:16; 3. Evansville, Boisclair (Gwilliam, Robinson), 11:04. Penalties—Wichita, Flath (tripping), 1:22; Evansville, Stauffacher (fighting major), 10:19; Wichita, Flath (fighting major), 10:19; Evansville, OConnor (tripping), 16:26.
Scoring—4. Evansville, Stauffacher empty-net (Boisclair), 19:30. Penalties—Evansville, Lindberg (hooking), 1:48; Wichita, Sawyer (tripping), 5:44; Evansville, Obermeyer (roughing), 9:34; Wichita, Donaghy (high sticking), 11:48.
Power play—Evansville 1 for 5, Wichita 0 for 5
Shots—Evansville 7-7-8—22, Wichita 9-4-9—22
Saves—Evansville, Gillis 21 saves on 22 shots; Wichita, Russo 19 saves on 21 shots.