FORT WAYNE, Ind. — The teams’ locker rooms are on opposite ends of the bowels of War Memorial Coliseum.
Monday, it was more than an architectural feature. It was symbolic of what was happening inside them after Fort Wayne’s 6-3 victory over the Thunder to clinch the Central Hockey League championship.
In the Fort Wayne dressing room on the east side of the arena, the scene was typical of any team that just won a title. Champagne. Music. More champagne. Champagne everywhere.
Over on the west side, any champagne in Wichita’s locker room would have only served to ease the sting of the most difficult five-game stretch of its season.
The Thunder earned a reprieve by winning Game 4 after falling behind in the series 3-0, but that only delayed another game in which they were clearly outplayed by a better team.
Wichita’s season ended with a home team celebrating a championship on its home ice, but with Games 6 and 7 originally scheduled for Intrust Bank Arena, the Thunder’s homecoming won’t offer a fulfillment of expectations.
"We still had a belief that we would bring it back to Wichita, and everyone believed that," Thunder captain Daniel Tetrault said.
Thunder goalie Adam Russo said before the series that the title wouldn’t be decided by which team had the better players or the better schemes, but by which was able to enforce its emotional will.
That idea was on point when Russo expressed it more than a week ago. The teams had similar statistics during the regular season, and Wichita’s wins in both games against Fort Wayne meant nothing because both teams entered the playoffs with different looks and personnel.
After five games — four in which the Thunder was outscored 25-12 — Wichita was forced to admit that will had very little to do with its defeat. The Thunder couldn’t match up, and its lack of speed in relation to a superior opponent became more evident throughout the series.
Wichita was especially hurt on breakaways. Its defensemen, who aren’t of the stay-at-home variety, had trouble getting back to prevent Fort Wayne’s forwards from skating deep into the zone to get relatively easy shots.
On the Thunder’s own breakaways, Wichita could rarely skate past the Komets’ blue-liners, forcing it to take shots from deeper range and leaving the rebounds to the Fort Wayne defensemen who got there first. Wichita got few point-blank chances against goalie Fort Wayne and were often unable to exploit his weaknesses.
"I think we gained momentum throughout the playoffs," Fort Wayne forward Kaleigh Schrock said. "They’re a tough team and this series was closer than five games. They battled back all the time. They’re a tough team to play against — they’re physical and they’re skilled and it really made it tough for us."
As evident as Fort Wayne’s tangible advantages became, it’s conviction wasn’t without credit for its series win, especially on Monday. The Thunder went ahead 1-0 on a penalty shot by Aaron Davis in the opening minutes, and Fort Wayne turned from reluctant to ravenous.
The Komets scored the next four goals in a span of 3:26, abusing rookie goalie Bryan Hogan, who helped the Thunder gain confidence with a solid Game 4 showing. Wichita cut the deficit to 4-2 before the first half of the first period was over, but slowing down Fort Wayne proved too immovable an obstacle.
"Tonight when we got down that one goal, we hit the panic button a little early," Thunder defenseman Justin Sawyer said. "We got into desperation mode a little too early. We didn’t stay composed and they had their eyes on the prize the whole game."
Wichita had the CHL’s best regular-season record and seemed as if it was being groomed for a championship all year. It was hardly fathomable that the Thunder could be outplayed as badly as it was during the finals because it hadn’t happened before.
In most games, belief was all the Thunder needed to turn any shortcomings into strengths. It won in spite of numerous injuries and the promotions of Andrew Martens and Alex Bourret, who eventually returned.
Bourret returned from a Game 1 injury on Friday, and usual starting goalie Adam Russo was out after being hurt in Game 2. Bourret, Wichita’s best player, didn’t make much of a difference and Russo probably couldn’t have.
"Big year for the guys, I just feel bad for the guys," Thunder coach Kevin McClelland said. "I wanted those guys to win. Not me, those guys. They worked hard and put a lot of time in, and we fought through a lot of adversity as a hockey club. I would have just really loved to have seen those guys walk out with a smile on their face chasing that winning feeling, because there’s nothing like it."
1. Wichita, Davis (penalty shot), 2:29; 2. Fort Wayne, Chaulk (Vaskivuo, DeAngelis), 5:19; 3. Fort Wayne, Schrock (unassisted), 6:00; 4. Fort Wayne, DeAngelis PP (Chaulk, Chaumont), 7:33; 5. Fort Wayne, Chaumont (Milam, Smith), 8:45; 6. Wichita, Robinson (Davis, Beauregard), 9:45; 7. Fort Wayne, Vaskivuo (DeAngelis, Auger), 14:27. Penalties—Wichita, Flath (slashing), 6:35; Seibel (cross checking), 15:55.
Scoring—8. Fort Wayne, Chaumont (Mele), 6:38. Penalties—Fort Wayne, Rizk (slashing), 8:40; Fort Wayne, Maggio (tripping), 16:29.
Scoring—9. Wichita, Beauregard (Tetrault), 9:07. Penalties—Fort Wayne, Maggio (elbowing), 1:28; Wichita, Bourret (roughing), 14:57; Fort Wayne, Lovell (cross checking), 14:57; Fort Wayne, Mele (roughing), 14:57.
Power play—Wichita 0 for 4, Fort Wayne 1 for 2. Shots—Wichita 6-6-13—25, Fort Wayne 14-8-3—25. Saves—Wichita, Hogan 19 on 25 shots; Fort Wayne, Boucher 22-25.