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Jeffrey Lutz’s CHL report Jeffrey Lutz’s CHL report: Thunder’s physical players can’t find willing opponents

  • Published Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, at 7:39 p.m.

TOO BIG TO FIGHT

Last season, Thunder coach Kevin McClelland told his players to keep from fighting whenever possible. This season, that message is coming from opponents.

After loading up the team with aggressive players never shy about dropping the gloves, Wichita has found an opposition far less willing to engage. Several of the Thunder’s most physical players are well behind their career norms in penalty minutes, and a former strength has turned neutral at best.

Even with McClelland’s directive, the Thunder earned 52 major penalties last season, fifth in the Central Hockey League. Wichita’s 19 such infractions through 32 games so far rank last, with players such as Erick Lizon and Garrett Gruenke lost for combatants.

“I think we could play a little bit more physical,” Gruenke said. “But it’s hard when other teams, especially with the fighting majors, if teams don’t want to fight, it’s hard to go into that kind of thing and grab someone. A lot of people don’t want to fight Lizon, or certain guys, and that cuts down on our penalty minutes for the most part.”

Lizon has 14 penalty minutes in 13 games, well off his totals of 159 in 65 games last year. Gruenke is about even with his pace from 2012-13 but far away from his career high of 176 PIMs in 64 games four seasons ago.

A minor rule change has done little to impact fighting throughout the league. Last season, CHL teams totaled 533 major penalties; through the first half of 2013-14, clubs have earned 278 majors, ahead of last year’s pace.

The Thunder, though, has seemingly been the only team majorly affected by the league’s move to curtail fighting, because while other teams may be finding even matches among themselves, the Thunder struggles to find willing participants. Wichita has been in 19 fights, compared to 48 last year and 52 each of the previous two seasons.

“We haven’t really been in a lot of physical games,” McClelland said. “It’s weird. We’ve got some tough guys, but no one really challenges then. They’ve gone out and they’ve asked for dance partners, but no one has (accepted) yet. Maybe that’s what we need to build more into our team.

“With the new rules, though, everything is going to be down, anyway.”

One statistic backs up the Thunder’s physicality – Wichita has allowed the league’s fewest shots, indicative of its ability to keep opponents from getting comfortable in the offensive zone.

“I think we could be more physical against their top-line players,” Gruenke said. “If you do that, over the course of the season, it’s going to take a toll on those players and give your team a better chance to win some games.”

SLAP SHOTS

• Last season, Wichita’s three longest losing streaks added up to nine losses. The eighth-place Thunder has lost 16 games in its three longest streaks this year, including overtime defeats.

• Wichita fell into second in the CHL in power-play success rate at 21.1. Denver leads the league, converting on 23.6 percent of its chances.

PLUS

Thunder forward Jon Booras has 24 points in his last 21 games. He has nine multi-point games and leads Wichita with 37 points.

MINUS

After losing last week 6-3 to Arizona and 5-3 to Allen, Wichita has lost seven times (two after regulation) in which it has scored at least three goals.

TAP OF THE STICK

Wichita’s Jesse Dudas leads CHL defensemen with 26 points, followed by teammate Andrew Martens with 24 points.

REALITY TV NIGHT

Former “Big Brother” reality-show winner Rachel Reilly will appear at Wichita’s home game Jan. 17 against Quad City. Former “Amazing Race” contestants Mona Egender and Beth Bandimere will also appear to commemorate Reality TV Night at Intrust Bank Arena.

DEFINING DIGIT

4

Wichita has the league’s fewest home wins, with a 4-11-2 record at Intrust Bank Arena.

HE SAID IT

“It just seems frustrating because they get two points. They leave town with two points and we don’t get those. We have the same chances they do, the rebounds in the first period, the second. You never know what shot or pass is going to determine the outcome of the game.”

— Thunder forward Matt Summers after Saturday’s loss to Arizona

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