The Thunder’s win over Brampton on Wednesday night didn’t erase its problems as much as it forced an examination of just how poor Wichita played in the first fourth of the season.
Wichita owns the worst goal differential in the Central Hockey League, being outscored 61-41. The goal total is the worst in the league, though no team has played more games than the Thunder, and Wichita has one fewer home loss than the top five teams combined.
The most encouraging statistic is the 49 games remaining, offering hope to the Thunder that Wednesday’s win was the start of more positive trends. Wichita held off Brampton late, earning its first one-goal victory in 38 days.
“We’ve had trouble holding leads and everything, so it’s a good confidence booster for us,” Wichita forward Matt Robinson said. “The way we’ve been losing games, we’ve been kind of telling ourselves that, if they do score one, we’ve just got to stay positive, not freak out and start backing off.”
Wednesday’s win looked more like a new beginning than a temporary reprieve from misery. Taylor Nelson started in goal for the second straight game in place of Torrie Jung and stopped 25 shots.
The Thunder may have also been boosted by the return of enforcer Erick Lizon on loan from Oklahoma City of the American Hockey League. Though Lizon doesn’t produce the statistics that sway outcomes, he’s an emotional leader whose intimidating presence as a frequent fighter can give the Thunder a psychological lift.
Though coach Kevin McClelland lamented a brief letdown in the third period, the Thunder livened up late to meet Brampton at an emotional apex and withstand the Beast’s desperation to send the game to overtime.
“As soon as they scored that goal (to make it 3-2 in the third), on the bench and on the ice we were telling each other, let’s keep it going,” Robinson said. “It’s not over, there’s still time left, we can still win this as long as we didn’t sit back and play goaltender ourselves. I thought we did really good at being aggressive and staying in their face and trying to get (the puck) out of their zone.”
McClelland also expressed mild frustration over the offense’s tendency to score in spurts, but that might be a side effect of an evolving offense. The Thunder has the second-best power play unit in the CHL but isn’t as efficient at even strength, so Wichita’s best scoring stretches come when it is playing with momentum.
That may change as the Thunder players familiarize with one another. Matt Summers and Ian Lowe, a power-play specialist, recently returned from lengthy injuries, and newcomers such as Jon Booras and Tomas Klempa have improved their production lately.
“You’d like to just get that team that’s hungry,” McClelland said. “When you get a little bit of a lead … we had some opportunities on the power play when we didn’t get a shot. That’s when we’ve got to get better and get consistent and know we’ve got to work and make our opportunities.”
Wight retires — Thunder defenseman Travis Wight, who played in 214 games in three-plus seasons in Wichita, retired Wednesday to join the Thunder coaching staff for the rest of the season. Wight, who was named the CHL Man of the Year last season for his charitable contributions in Wichita, reached the playoffs in each of his seasons with the Thunder and owned a plus-25 rating. Wight's departure created the necessary room to add Lizon to the roster.