Until fewer than six minutes remained in Wichita’s game Friday night against Rapid City, there was no evidence – at least for those not in attendance – that a Thunder player had even taken part.
No goals, no penalties. Nothing. And no enthusiasm from usually passionate fans by the end of a 4-1 loss to the best team in the league, plainly conveying the separation between Wichita and the Central Hockey League’s elite.
The Thunder has been elite for the last two seasons but appears to have had its confidence dashed by a slew of one-goal losses that have turned into more convincing defeats recently.
Wichita dropped to 0-6-2 at Intrust Bank Arena, where it was 25-6-2 last season.
The half-hearted fight engaged by the debuting Alexandre Carrier with Justin Sawyer in the final minutes was the embodiment of not only the Thunder’s ever-decreasing passion, but a display of how Wichita’s dwindling confidence can be injected into an unsuspecting newcomer.
“We’re just making critical errors at the wrong time,” Thunder coach Kevin McClelland said. “The desperation is not there right now. We had some opportunities – put 40 shots on net – but we’re not getting a timely goal. It seems like we’re playing from behind all the time, too.”
Critical errors and playing from behind are circumstances for disaster against Rapid City, which carries perhaps the league’s top goalie in Tim Boron and is playing with the energy that mirrors the Thunder’s listlessness.
The Rush won its first 10 games and only a one-goal loss to fellow one-loss team Missouri blemishes its record. Rapid City is particularly dangerous with the lead because of a defense, anchored by Boron, that has allowed two or fewer goals in seven of 10 games.
At one point during the second period, Rapid City appeared more satisfied to protect its 1-0 lead than to build on it. Boron was aided by traffic in front of the goal that the Thunder couldn’t penetrate, and the shots that got to Boron were often impeded.
That approach eventually worked to create cohesion for the Rush that Wichita couldn’t duplicate or prevent. Rapid City emerged with a loose puck near Wichita’s net to earn its second goal, then went ahead 3-0 when a Thunder defensive breakdown created a breakaway for Konrad Reeder.
“That’s where our team is so good, on the offensive end,” said Sawyer, who played in Wichita in 2011-12. “We’re so fast and we’re so skilled that sometimes we force quick turnovers and turn them into scoring chances. We try to be fast and be relentless in their end.”
Those used to be hallmarks of the Thunder, but Wichita either lacks skill and speed or the desire to exhibit it. That attitude is carrying over to the Thunder’s notoriously rowdy fans, who late in the game couldn’t summon the energy to taunt the Rush or to offer much verbal support to Carrier in his tussle with Sawyer.
The Thunder, which saw the returns of forwards Ian Lowe and Matt Summers and put Summers on a line with his teammates for two-plus seasons, RG Flath and Matt Robinson, still looked like a team searching for an identity and for the right blend.
“It’s the sense of urgency,” Thunder captain Andrew Martens said. “We’ve got to get that in here. We’ve got to take games over and we’ve got to play harder.”
Scoring — 1. Rapid City, Faryna (unassisted), 5:19. Penalties—Rapid City, Brown (hooking), 6:11; Rapid City, Weselowski (tripping), 19:10.
Scoring—2. Rapid City, Brannon (Giosa, Brown), 8:10; 3. Reeder (Day Chief, Schultz), 13:13. Penalties—Rapid City, Llewellyn (tripping), 19:12.
Scoring—4. Rapid City, Stroh SH (Brannon, Weselowski), 9:22; 5. Wichita, Dudas (Booras, McParland), 14:39. Penalties—Rapid City, Palmer (tripping), 9:01; Rapid City, Sawyer (fighting major), 17:13; Wichita, Carrier (fighting major), 17:13; Wichita, J. Wilson (slashing), 17:13; Rapid City, Palmer (slashing), 17:13; Wichita, Booras (interference), 18:00.
Power play—Rapid City 0-1, Wichita 0-4. Shots—Rapid City 11-6-7—34, Wichita 13-11-16—40. Saves—Rapid City, Boron 39-40; Wichita, Jung 30-34.