The Thunder relieved many of its frustrations with a 6-1 win at Tulsa on Tuesday, now it’s time to look at the big picture.
That victory, along with the impending return to collective good health, may change the landscape of that picture. But for Wichita — loser of six one-goal decisions so far — a true sign of progress might not come until it pull out a close game.
“We’ve had so many one-goal games, where we’ve had the lead in a lot of them and we’ve lost by one goal,” Thunder defenseman Travis Wight said. “Those are the type of games we’re going to expect more of. A lot of the games in this league are not blowouts, they’re close games. Those are the ones we need to end up being on the winning side.
“The ones we’ve lost, a handful by just one goal. But at the end of the day, it’s still a loss in the column.”
There are several big-picture aspects to the Thunder’s slow start, not the least of which has been spending time without five of its most important players. Andrew Martens returned after his injured-reserve stint, and forwards Matt Summers and Ian Lowe, among others, are eligible to return by next week.
After employing 25 players in its run to the Central Hockey League finals all last season, Wichita has suited up 29 in its first 13 games this season. Coach Kevin McClelland has filled spots with waiver-wire pickups and is eager to see a less crowded dressing room.
“It’s pretty uncomfortable with so many guys around,” McClelland said. “… The way it is, guys are coming into the lineup and going out of the lineup. It’s hard to find that continuity and familiarity with each other. We ran into some injuries that really hurt this club, obviously. There are going to be two or three guys leaving after the game Saturday night.
“It is a good thing. It’s always tough to make those decisions, but those decisions are pretty easy to make if you get to stand behind the bench and watch what (has been) going on.”
The big picture shows a core group of players who are in their third year with the Thunder and have never experienced extended losing. In the previous two years, players such as Wight, Matt Robinson, Summers, RG Flath and Dustin Donaghy have been at or near first place basically every day. Early this season, the losses have piled up to create a new experience for that group.
The tipping point may have been a 3-2 loss to Denver on Nov. 3, Wichita’s fifth straight one-goal defeat. The Thunder was outscored 11-1 over the next three games before releasing that negative energy with Tuesday’s win at Tulsa.
“This year, you have the past two successful years (and) everybody just expects that everything is going to be the same,” Wight said. “But we all know sports – you can never just expect to be good every year. That could have been a bit of the problem, we just expected, because of our track record, that we were going to win games.”
That group, because of the runs to the finals, has also played about 160 games over the past two years. That’s less than two NHL regular seasons, but it cuts the offseason short and gives players less time for mental and physical recovery.
The big picture also shows the Thunder, despite the core group that has been in place the last two seasons, struggling to replace some one-year wonders.
Neil Trimm was last season’s leading scorer, Kevin Young set a team scoring record for defensemen, Chad Painchaud was outstanding when healthy, and Dave Inman was productive on both sides. All those players, except for Young, who joined the Thunder at the end of 2011-12, played one season in Wichita.
Wichita believes the secret to preventing these issues from festering is to not focus on the big picture.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re looking one game at a time right now,” McClelland said. “This league is very good this year and there are a lot of good players. Once we get our numbers down with the guys that we’re comfortable with in the lineup, you’ll see a big difference.”