Kevin McClelland isn’t an expressive coach with a stack of motivational speeches in his office, ready to use whenever the situation calls for one. But Thunder players are familiar enough with McClelland to detect excitement from their coach.
Of course, it doesn’t take an overly emotional person to be excited about the prospect of winning a Central Hockey League championship, which the Thunder can do by winning the next two games against Allen — Wichita trails the best-of-seven finals 3-2.
While McClelland isn’t instructing his team to "Win one for Mac," his inability to go longer than a few seconds without mentioning Friday’s Game 6 at Intrust Bank Arena is an easy tell that he’s as amped as anyone would be in this situation.
"Most of all, he’s a competitive guy," Thunder forward Matt Summers said. "I heard him say this morning, someone asked how he was doing and he said, ’Well, just ready for the game to start.’ That goes for everyone on the team."
Wichita’s players share McClelland’s enthusiasm, though they might not be as understated about it. The two days off since Allen won at home 5-1 in Game 5 to take the lead in the series has been kind to the players’ bodies but treacherous to their minds.
A near-72 hour wait isn’t a calming influence for the Thunder, whose Game 4 loss was its only loss at home during the postseason. It’s been an agonizing wait for the puck to drop Friday night.
"I think it just makes us more ready to go," Thunder captain and defenseman Andrew Martens said. "You’re thinking about it all the time. It’s a big week for us, and hopefully we can make this happen."
McClelland can be plenty emotional, as his suggested by his role as enforcer for the Edmonton Oilers during the 1980s, when he protected Wayne Gretzky and helped Edmonton win four Stanley Cup championships. In those years, McClelland routinely accumulated more than 200 penalty minutes and was an opponent few fellow fighters wanted to approach.
As a coach, though, McClelland operates more on an even keel. His motivational tactics are more intangible and come sooner than an important postseason series, such as building teams he believes will develop strong chemistry and orchestrating a system that allows every player to flourish.
McClelland keeps the lines of communication with his players open, and his words can be effective without a raised voice.
"I think you’ve got to be prepared and go about your business," McClelland said. "I’ll give them little bits and pieces and tidbits, but you’ve got to go about your business and just be ready for what’s going to tackle us (Friday) night.
"We had a good little chat on the ice before our skate (Thursday) morning. I let the boys know what’s coming, what’s in front of us on Friday night, and how we pull together. Just the normal stuff."
What’s in front of Wichita is a need to reverse its performance of the last five periods. In the second period of Game 4 in Wichita, the Thunder led 1-0 and appeared on the verge of adding to the lead. Instead, the Americans scored the tying goal and got the decisive score in the third.
Two nights later in Allen, the Americans scored four goals in seven minutes and controlled most of the other 53 minutes in a 5-1 win, the most convincing victory for either team in the series.
Opposing a team that has built significant momentum over the last two games could be worrisome, but the opponent isn’t as much of a concern for the Thunder as being able to live with its performance as the end of the season quickly approaches.
"Including (Thursday), we have three days left of the season," Martens said. "You work so hard this whole year for a chance at this, and you have three days left, that’s it. Just put it together for three days."
McClelland’s message has held a similarly urgent tone that hasn’t become an impassioned plea.
"He’s just reminding us of all the good things we’ve done all season," Summers said. "We need to put it together for 120 minutes. Everything we’ve done this season comes down to the first period (Friday). Then you move on, shift-by-shift. You never know what play is going to get us to Game 7, whether it’s in the first period or the third or overtime. Whatever it takes."