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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wichita Thunder throw down to keep playing

By Jeffrey Lutz
The Wichita Eagle

There is still fight left in the Thunder.


With Saturday’s Game 4 tied 3-3 late in the second period, defenseman Justin Sawyer scrapped with Fort Wayne’s Kaleigh Schrock. Sawyer, was the decisive winner, and the fight provided the emotional lift the Thunder has lacked throughout the series.

Wichita still trails the CHL Finals 3-1, and fighting may be the element it needs to get back in the series. The Thunder hasn’t used it much during the postseason because it hasn’t needed to, but against an opponent that overmatched Wichita badly for three games, it may have to rely on bullying tactics.

Sawyer was the perfect candidate to give the Thunder such a boost — at 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, he is a tough match physically.

“It’s needed every night and we didn’t do that the first three games,” Thunder captain Daniel Tetrault said. "Finally, everyone stepped up on the physical side. Some of our scorers aren’t scoring, and if they’re not scoring you have to do something else to help the team out, and that’s being physical.”

Sawyer and Schrock have carried on a verbal feud for much of the series. Schrock gives away seven inches and 50 pounds to Sawyer, but words could no longer settle their differences and they dropped gloves on Saturday for the first time in the series.

Even though Saywer was the clear favorite, there was some risk in fighting. Wichita fed off the energy of the 10,480 fans at War Memorial Coliseum, but losing to an undersized foe could have demoralized Sawyer and the Thunder and sparked Fort Wayne, which played with hesitancy during the third period.

The rewards outweighed the dangers, though, and Sawyer wasn’t going to avoid throwing down if doing so gave the Thunder a psychological advantage for the final period.

"We were both frustrated and I just wanted to fight," Sawyer said. "I tried to get the boys fired up and just throw as hard as I could. It looks like they responded. It was great fighting in front of that crowd, and in the championships, it was a great feeling."

The fight itself was a classic, just like the Thunder’s narrow victory. Officials gave the participants leeway they may not have had during the regular season, and the extra time allowed Sawyer and Schrock to each gain early advantages.

There weren’t many direct hits, but after about a minute Schrock went down and officials intervened, sending both players to the penalty box.

The sold-out crowd applauded Schrock’s ability to hold is own against a physically superior opponent, but the Thunder came out of the fight in multiple forms of better shape.

"It just shows that attitude that we’re not going to be pushed around in there, we’re not going to take any crap," Sawyer said. "I’m tired of being pushed around by these guys. We’re going to come at them. If they want to fight, we’re going to fight."

That might be all that is left for the Thunder. Even during Saturday’s win, Wichita had trouble eluding Fort Wayne and was the beneficiary of six Komets shots off the post that could have turned the game.

Fort Wayne is almost never outclassed physically — the Komets led the CHL with 80 major penalties during the regular season. But the Thunder, with many other avenues toward slowing Fort Wayne down reaching dead ends, had to try something different.

For one game, it worked.

"It was tied 3-3 there," Thunder forward Aaron Davis said. "Sawyer stepped up there and had a great fight and got the boys going. We fed off that energy and just kept going."

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