One game isn’t enough evidence for Thunder coach Kevin McClelland to act.
But many more games like Friday’s season-opener, where Wichita was listless in a 2-1 loss to the Rapid City Rush at Intrust Bank Arena, and McClelland might not have a choice.
McClelland sat in his office afterward frustrated, but also calm. He feels like he has already identified the reason behind the lack of offensive production.
“There’s just some guys on our team that can’t play in the league,” he said bluntly. “There’s some guys out there that are on our team that might stay status quo. But they can’t play on the team.”
It might sound harsh, but it’s a stark reality for teams in the Central Hockey League. Even Wichita, an organization fresh off back-to-back appearances in the CHL Finals, have a process of weeding out players.
“It’s a new environment,” Thunder defender Travis Wight said. “It’s not college anymore. It’s not the highest level pro, but it’s still pro. We do have a good group of guys back, but there are a lot of new faces out there so it’s going to take time.”
Retaining the identity of the last two season’s teams may be difficult.
Wichita couldn’t uphold its reputation as a disciplined squad on Friday, committing 11 infractions in the game — six coming in the first period alone.
“That’s almost foreign to our team,” Wight said. “Our thing is capitalizing on our power plays, which we didn’t have any because we were in the box the entire night. That really deflated us in the first period.”
But the Thunder emerged with a 1-0 lead after the first period, thanks to a crafty move by Andrew Martens to draw two defenders along the boards on a power play and slip a pass that RG Flath finished in the back of the net four minutes into the game.
Beside goalie Torrie Jung making crucial saves that kept the score tied entering the third period, the highlights ended there for Wichita.
Wichita’s offense lacked creativity and vision, too often taking the bait of chasing highlight-reel goals instead of staying patient and manufacturing a goal through quick passing.
“It seemed like as soon as we got the puck, we tried to get it off our stick as quick as possible,” Flath said. “Or we maybe tried to make too pretty of a play in the neutral zone. We need to keep the puck low and make the defenders do their jobs.”
“And that wasn’t just the young guys,” McClelland added. “That was the older guys, too.”
Even without scraping the top of its potential, Wichita — or Jung, at least — positioned itself to win the game in the third period.
But it was Rapid City that struck, scoring with 4:57 remaining in the third period on a goal scored by Konrad Reeder after a controversial sequence of events.
Wichita players on the ice claimed the puck ricocheted above the boards and hit the netting on Rapid City’s end. Already flustered by the perceived no-call, the Thunder players lost their composure when the same thing happened again on the other end when the puck flipped off Jung and appeared to hit the netting again.
The puck was not whistled dead and Reeder scored a few seconds later. Wichita responded by committing three penalties in the next three minutes.
“A bit of a tough break there,” Jung said. “But we’re not always going to get the call.”
“It shouldn’t come down to that, anyway,” Flath said. “We need to be playing better. It felt like we let that game get away.”
Wichita pulled Jung in the final two minutes to create a man advantage, but failed to create even a chance to equalize the score.
Wichita was outshot 35-17 by Rapid City.
The Thunder has a home-and-away with the Allen Americans the next two days, an opening stretch that will be paired with the team’s training game and exhibition game that McClelland will evaluate after the opening weekend.
“It’s an evaluation period for everyone, to see what we’ve got,” Flath said. “I think we have some really good, young talent. We just have to help them out.”
One thing is for sure: Friday night’s team didn’t look like last year’s Thunder.
“Oh,” McClelland said in agreement. “Big time.”
Scoring—1. Wichita, Flath (Martens, Hostetter), 4:00 (pp). Penalties—Rapid City, Weselowski (holding), 0:35; Rapid City, Kostolansky (too many men), 3:38; Wichita, Robinson (slashing), 6:20; Wichita, Martens (high sticking), 7:21; Rapid City, Faryna (charging), 14:34; Wichita, Lowe (tripping), 15:33; Rapid City, Weselowski (roughing), 15:33; Wichita, Lowe (roughing), 15:33; Wichita, Flath (cross checking), 17:37; Wichita, Summers (roughing), 19:33.
Scoring—2. Rapid City, Schultz (Brown, Llewellyn), 17:16 (pp). Penalties—Wichita, Hand (boarding), 3:05; Wichita, Martens (tripping), 15:48.
Scoring—3. Rapid City, Reeder (Llewellyn, Brannon), 15:03. Penalties—Rapid City, Brannon (check to the head), 5:00; Rapid City, Sawyer (tripping), 10:29; Rapid City, Brannon (roughing), 16:44; Wichita, Dudas (roughing), 16:44; Wichita, Wilson (tripping), 18:15; Wichita, Dudas (abuse of officials), 18:15; Rapid City, Giosa (holding), 18:31.