At the end of the second period Wednesday against Fort Worth, Thunder goalie Torrie Jung lingered near his goal for a few seconds as his teammates skated into the locker room.
Perhaps Jung was giving the standing ovation from the fans behind the glass time to sink in. Or maybe he just needed to catch his breath after an eventful second period.
Wichita scored two power-play goals in the second and Jung helped the Thunder hold onto the lead with a few impressive saves. The Thunder’s special teams play, where it also stopped four Fort Worth power-play attempts, was key to its 4-1 win at Intrust Bank Arena.
The Thunder took a 1-0 lead in the semifinals of the Central Hockey League playoffs and is 5-0 in the postseason after an opening-round sweep of Arizona. Game 2 is Thursday night in Wichita.
"We’re getting what we’re earning out there," Thunder defenseman Kevin Young said. "We’re putting the right effort in and we’re getting the right results right now."
The Thunder didn’t have a power-play chance in the first period and was unable to use a special teams advantage over the Brahmas that it established during the regular season. In their eight games, Wichita cashed in eight of 38 extra-man opportunities while holding Fort Worth to 5 of 37.
A difference of three goals over eight games can appear minuscule, but that slight edge continued to work in the Thunder’s favor on Wednesday, when it scored on its first two power plays.
Importance on special teams is heightened during the postseason, when games are officiated more loosely and borderline plays are not often penalized.
"It’s huge," Wichita forward RG Flath said. "In the playoffs you live and die by your special teams, and tonight it definitely gave us the advantage."
Wichita’s power-play unit, which often includes offensive-minded defensemen Young and Andrew Martens, was particularly sharp Wednesday. Young and Martens assisted both power-play goals, scored by Chad Painchaud and Flath.
Fewer whistles meant fewer scoring chances with an extra man, but it also played into the Thunder’s preferred style. Teams will perhaps be unable to beat the Thunder four times out of seven if it can’t match its physicality, and Fort Worth couldn’t do it in Game 1.
The return of Erick Lizon from a stint in the American Hockey League has given the Thunder a catalyst for its hard-hitting ways, but Wichita has several others willing to follow suit. Flath and Ian Lowe, for example, are forwards under 6-feet who are often eager to mix it up. Wichita has been careful, however, not to cross the line.
"The thing about our team is we can adapt to any situation," Young said. "We have a high-octane offense, we’ve got a shutdown (defense). We have a physical team, especially in the playoffs we’re not going to back down from anything. We’re walking away from stuff after the whistles. We’ve got a good game plan here, if we keep sticking to it things are going to turn out well."
The Thunder’s defense didn’t need much help Wednesday, as its physicality forced hesitation among the slower-paced Brahmas, who scored 53 fewer goals than Wichita during the regular season.
Wichita also effectively created congestion near the goal during penalty kills. When Fort Worth became more urgent when facing a two-goal deficit in the second, Jung was a worthy anchor. He slid and stretched for saves in the second, making nine of his 21 saves.
The Thunder’s defense also excelled facing 4-on-6 when Fort Worth pulled its goalie late, and Flath scored an empty-net goal in the final minute.
"We have three pairs of d-men who can shut down lines," Young said. "We’re not worried about who’s matching up against who, we’re just rolling them through and doing what we do."
Series schedule — The rest of the series schedule was announced Wednesday. There will be a one-week gap after Thursday’s game 2; games 3 and 4 will be played in Fort Worth on April 18 and 20. Game 5, if needed, will be in Wichita on April 21, followed by an April 23 game in Fort Worth and April 24 game in Wichita.
1. Fort Worth, Szydlowski (Klempa, Nutkevitch), 7:44; 2. Wichita, Young (Hanson, Reaney), 9:52. Penalties—Wichita, Inman (boarding), 11:44; Wichita, Summers (interference), 19:08.
3. Wichita, Painchaud PP (Young, Martens), 7:12; 4. Wichita, Flath PP (Young, Martens), 14:22. Penalties—Fort Worth, Ruwe (roughing), 6:44; Wichita, Robinson (slashing), 11:28; Fort Worth, Schneider (tripping), 13:15.
5. Wichita, Flath empty-net (Trimm, Jung), 19:42. Penalties—Wichita, Trimm (elbowing), 15:56.
Power play—Fort Worth 0 for 4, Wichita 2 for 2. Shots—Fort Worth 7-9-7—22, Wichita 12-12-9—33. Saves—Fort Worth, Westblom 29 on 32 shots; Wichita, Jung 22 on 23 shots.