An argument can be made that Chad Painchaud’s power-play conversion in the second period Saturday night against Denver was the Thunder’s most important goal of the hockey season, at least so far.
Wichita would have had a difficult road toward winning the league with a loss to the Cutthroats. They’d be clinging to third place, seven points behind Central Hockey League-leading Allen and closer to sixth place than first.
Instead, Painchaud’s goal with less than a minute to go in the second gave the Thunder’s chase for first place some stability. It tied the score and led to a dominant third period that culminated with a Neil Trimm empty-net goal and a 6-3 win at Intrust Bank Arena.
The Thunder trailed Denver 2-1 and 3-2 Saturday, a night after a blowout loss to the Cutthroats. Saturday, Wichita adjusted to Denver’s aggressiveness and exhibited that trait more often than Denver. By the end, the Cutthroats were unable to keep up despite its balance.
"It was a huge shift, obviously," Thunder coach Kevin McClelland said of Painchaud’s goal. "He came down on a 2-on-1 (previously) and missed that opportunity. But they were taking away our top guy on the power play, so he took it down to the top of the circles and let a good shot go."
Painchaud’s goal was an example of how quickly a hockey game can change, especially during a power play. After a poor first period, Denver goalie Michael DiLorenzo was locked in for most of the second, best displaying his improvement by stopping a flurry of shots in the middle of the period.
With assists from Andrew Martens and Neil Trimm, who celebrated his 30th birthday with a five-point game, Painchaud broke through against DiLorenzo. His shot from near the left circle put an end to DiLorenzo’s hot stretch and served as fuel for Wichita in the third.
"He played well (Friday) night, too, so we knew we had to get a lot of shots on net," Painchaud said. "We were able to squeak a few by him. A couple he might want to have back, but we squeaked a few by him and had a couple good goals, too. All around, it was a good game for us."
The Thunder outscored Denver 14-1 in two home games last month, but on Friday the Cutthroats showed a versatility not previously shown. In addition to a trio of skilled forwards among the top eight in the CHL in scoring, Denver played more physically early in Friday’s game and had the Thunder on its heels.
Saturday, Wichita matched Denver in that area. A fight between Matt Summers and Michael Trebish set the tone for a hard-fought game in which Denver’s three scoring stars were mostly a non-factor.
Brad Smyth notched a goal and Troy Schwab had an assist, but those were the only two points registered by Denver’s top forwards. A.J. Gale, who leads Denver in scoring and like Schwab is a former Thunder player, went scoreless.
"They’re a fast team," Painchaud said. "They’ve got a lot of skill up front, so we’ve got to be physical against them. I thought we did a better job of that tonight than we did (Friday) night. That’s what we had to do to contain their skill."
Keeping Denver’s best scorers from determining the outcome didn’t always make Denver’s offense less dangerous. The Cutthroats scored on their first two shots and three of their first nine, staying close even though Wichita was getting many more chances at the net.
Ultimately, though, it was the Thunder forwards that made the difference. Matt Robinson, who has scored 16 points in 14 games since his return from the ECHL, matched Painchaud’s goal and assist, and Trimm had his first five-point night with two goals and three assists.
Trimm, Wichita’s leading scorer, has 17 points in the last 10 games.
"He’s been playing well all year," Painchaud said. "He’s one of the leaders on the team and he’s been doing that every night. We’re thankful to have him."
Scoring — 1. Wichita, Trimm (Lowe, Inman), 3:53; 2. Denver, Smyth (Schwab, Cacaro), 10:03; 3. Denver, Bedard extra attacker (Gauthier, Fulghum), 10:55; 4. Wichita, Flath (Young, Painchaud), 12:17. Penalties — Denver, Trebish (interference, fighting major), 4:29; Wichita, Summers (fighting major), 4:29; Denver, Armstrong (abuse of officials), 4:29; Denver, Tesoriero (high sticking), 7:12; Denver, A. Smyth (slashing), 13:03; Wichita, Summers (diving), 13:03.
Scoring — 5. Denver, Fulghum (Bedard, Gauthier), 11:54; 6. Wichita, Painchaud PP (Martens, Trimm), 19:06. Penalties — Wichita, Inman (cross checking), 16:00; Denver, Cacaro (roughing), 17:16; Wichita, Flath (roughing), 17:16; Denver, Fulghum (high sticking), 17:48.
Scoring — 7. Wichita, Robinson (Young, Trimm), 12:27; 8. Wichita, Lowe (Trimm, Martens), 16:22; 9. Wichita, Trimm empty net (Robinson), 19:54. Penalties — Wichita, Martens (goalie interference), 14:14.
Power play — Denver 0 for 2, Wichita 1 for 4. Shots — Denver 2-9-9 — 20, Wichita 12-13-13 — 38. Saves — Denver, Dilorenzo 32 on 37 shots; Wichita, Jung 17-20.
T — 2:24. A — 5,505.