The Thunder is making more mistakes this season than in recent years, and that makes the mistakes more magnified.
Miscues, especially at critical times, can cancel out the improved energy and effort from the Thunder Saturday night, and they can wipe away what appear at the time to be game- or even season-changing moments.
Wichita had some of those moments Saturday, particularly during two four-minute stretches during the second period, but it also had more mistakes. Two of them led to goals in Rapid City’s 4-2 win at Intrust Bank Arena.
The defeat kept the Thunder winless at home, where it has already lost more games than it did all of last season. Coach Kevin McClelland noted the effort but spent little time praising it.
“But the result is not there,” McClelland said. “Again, a critical error on the game-winning goal. That can’t happen. You’ve got to shut those down — they can’t get goals like that. We battled hard all night long, and that can’t happen.”
The errors were turnovers, mostly by veteran players from whom McClelland expects steadiness. Forward RG Flath committed a first-period turnover that allowed Rapid City to score with 26 seconds remaining, nullifying a superior effort by Wichita for the first 19-plus minutes.
Like many of the Thunder’s failures so far, mistakes are becoming at least partly psychological, part of a mentality that has players accustomed to winning unsure of how to release itself from an extended funk.
Players are focusing too much on not making mistakes that they happen when that thinking removes focus from assignments and schemes.
“I think some guys are starting to squeeze the stick a little tight,” Flath said. “It’s one of those things where you have to just believe in yourself. Right now it’s tough times, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?”
Even taking his turnover into account, Flath became more a part of a potential solution than part of Saturday’s problems. Wichita earned a four-minute power play on a double-minor penalty early in the second period, finally giving the Thunder an outlet for their improved energy.
Flath scored the first goal of that stretch, then the Thunder took the lead when Jon Booras fired a shot past Tim Boron. Wichita had momentum, and it desperately grasped it even when facing an inversely difficult situation later in the period.
“Everybody started playing with more confidence,” Flath said. “I feel like the momentum definitely switched.”
Later in the second, Wichita drew its own double minor, and when Rapid City tied it 2-2 that seemed to strengthen the Thunder’s resolve. Flath, a physical player but not a fighter in the traditional sense, skirmished with Scott Brannon while other players engaged in minor tussles elsewhere.
Even though Wichita didn’t tangibly build on that emotion, Flath’s fight may have unlocked a secret to a potential Thunder turnaround that calls for players to step out of their comfort zones.
“We all have to play maybe 10 percent smarter, 10 percent harder,” Flath said. “We’re almost there, we just have to keep pushing until we get over this slump.”
McClelland is looking for similar sacrifice.
“We have to pay the price to get this turned around,” he said. “At the end of the day, it wasn’t the result we were looking for. We did some good things, yeah, but at the end of the day we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish.”
Scoring—1. Rapid City, Day Chief (Schultz, Brown), 19:34. Penalties—Rapid City, Day Chief (hooking), 4:38; Wichita, Robinson (tripping), 10:21.
Scoring—2. Wichita, Flath PP (Dudas, McParland), 5:12; 3. Wichita, Booras PP (Wilson, Martens), 6:31; 4. Rapid City, Llewellyn PP (Erickson), 13:47. Penalties—Rapid City, Erickson (high sticking double minor), 4:28; Wichita, Dudas (slashing), 8:27; Wichita, Booras (high sticking double minor), 12:49; Rapid City, Brannon (fighting major), 15:01; Wichita, Flath (fighting major), 15:01; Rapid City, Wray (unsportsmanlike conduct), 15:01; Wichita, Gruenke (unsportsmanlike conduct), 15:01.
Scoring—5. Rapid City, Schultz (Reeder, Weselowski), 16:21; 6. Rapid City, Kostolansky empty-net (unassisted), 19:00. Penalties—Rapid City, Kostolansky (slashing), 16:53.
Power play—Rapid City 1-4, Wichita 2-4. Shots—Rapid City 5-11-3—19, Wichita 6-8-11—25. Saves—Rapid City, Boron 23-25; Wichita, Nelson 15-18.