The biggest threat to the three-goal lead the Thunder established after one period Thursday against Fort Worth wasn’t the two goals the Brahmas scored in the second.
The Brahmas didn’t seem to truly gain momentum until they withstood a 5-on-3 Wichita advantage that lasted more than 90 seconds early in the third period. If Fort Worth was going to find the even-strength offense to tie and perhaps win the game, it was likely happening following its most vital defensive stand.
But Fort Worth, even though it was largely successful in slowing the pace to the more methodical style it prefers, couldn’t consistently slow the efficient Thunder offense. Greger Hanson added to the lead later in the third, an important goal in allowing Wichita to hold on for a 4-3 victory at Intrust Bank Arena.
Wichita leads the best-of-seven Central Hockey League semifinals series 2-0 but will have to wait six days for Game 3 next Thursday in Fort Worth.
"Those are two big wins," Thunder forward Ian Lowe said. "We’ve got to go back down there and play and it’s tough to win down there. It’s good to get some confidence and kind of show them that it’s going to be a long series no matter what."
Just like in Wichita’s Game 1 win, special teams played a major role not only in the outcome but in the tone of the game. Lowe sandwiched a power-play goal between RG Flath’s two goals for the Thunder in the first, Wichita’s third straight goal with a man advantage after cashing in two on Wednesday.
Fort Worth seemed most concerned early with limiting Wichita’s scorers, which proved unsuccessful — the Brahmas pulled goalie Kristofer Westblom after the Thunder scored three goals on seven first-period shots.
The Brahmas, who were unsuccessful in three power-play attempts in Game 1, used the extra man Thursday to finally find an offensive rhythm. Their 25-22 overall advantage in shots was largely due to the added attempts it got during three power plays in the second, two of which were converted by Ross Rouleau.
"It’s kind of unfortunate there, a couple bad bounces," Lowe said. "But in the playoffs that’s what it is — special teams wins the games for you. They got a couple there, and we’ve just got to limit those chances and stay out of the penalty box. We were laid back on our heels in the second, and they kind of took it to us."
Other than the power plays, Fort Worth had little going for it offensively, and a strategy to keep it a low-scoring game and force the Thunder to grind for goals backfired early.
The Thunder didn’t take a shot until nearly six minutes passed, but it scored on the second shot — a rebound from the first. Fort Worth often kept defensemen back when the Brahmas had the puck in near the Thunder net, a plan that limited the Brahmas and ultimately did little to stop the Thunder.
Wichita’s forwards found openings in the defense and were perfectly positioned for rebounds. The three-goal lead initially didn’t serve the Thunder well, as it managed three shots in the second period while Fort Worth took 12.
"A three-goal lead in hockey is always the worst lead to have," Flath said. "You kind of feel like you have more of a safety cushion, but as you see tonight it can disappear quick."
It narrowed quickly for the Thunder but never disappeared. Fort Worth was in a strong position to take control after it stopped Wichita’s 5-on-3 advantage with 16 minutes to scrounge up one more goal.
That never happened, possibly because the Brahmas were never again on the power play. Hanson converted a breakaway, a crucial insurance goal since the Brahmas scored with about five minutes to go.
"Whenever you have 5-on-3s, there are always momentum changes," Flath said. "I thought they got a little life after that, but we did a really good job of staying the course and keeping it on and not letting it affect us too much."
Scoring—1. Wichita, Flath (Wight, Summers), 5:49; 2. Wichita, Lowe PP (Painchaud, Young), 8:54; 3. Wichita, Flath (Summers, Robinson), 13:04. Penalties—Fort Worth, Hogg (tripping), 8:34; Wichita, Flath (tripping), 14:50.
Scoring—4. Fort Worth, Rouleau PP (Klempa Szydlowski), 2:57; 5. Fort Worth, Rouleau PP (Pallis, Nutkevitch), 7:51. Penalties—Wichita, Wight (tripping), 1:40; Fort Worth, Lavender (roughing), 5:48; Wichita, Hanson (roughing), 5:48; Wichita, Lutz (elbowing), 6:27; Fort Worth, Schneider (charging), 8:48; Fort Worth, Hogg (hooking), 18:43.
Scoring—6. Wichita, Hanson (Lutz), 11:35; Fort Worth, Mulvey (Helmbrecht, Lavender), 14:58. Penalties—Fort Worth, Schneider (hooking), 2:08; Fort Worth, Rouleau (cross checking), 2:31.
Power play—Fort Worth 2 for 3, Wichita 1 for 5.
Shots—Fort Worh 5-12-8—25, Wichita 9-3-10—22.
Saves—Fort Worth, Westblom 3 on 6 shots, Fogal 15-16; Wichita, Jung 22-25.