Two decisions were made two periods apart by Thunder personnel Tuesday night, and they intersected at the end to produce a 4-3 shootout win over Arizona at Intrust Bank Arena.
The first happened in the second period, after Wichita goalie David Brown allowed a soft goal by Jason Morgan to put Arizona ahead 3-1. Thunder coach Kevin McClelland immediately pulled Brown and inserted Taylor Nelson, a part-time starter.
Nelson didn’t allow another goal, and his reliability came to a head in the shootout, when he stopped five of six shots, including one in sudden death.
“He came on in relief there and he played unbelievable for us,” McClelland said. “We just had the conversation with the goaltenders two days ago and said, ‘You both have to prepare like you’re playing.’ It’s that time of the year where it’s crunch time, and you both have to be ready to go.”
The second fateful choice was made by Tomas Klempa in the sixth round of the shootout – the first round of sudden-death. Arizona’s Andrew Engelage was proving just as dependable in net as Brown and Klempa had to act quick to find a weakness.
Engelage left the crease to approach Klempa, forcing the Thunder forward to think fast. He altered his original plan in favor of shooting above Engelage’s head, and the puck sailed over the goalie and into the net almost as soon as a snap of his wrist made it leave Klempa’s stick.
“I was actually waiting until the last second,” Klempa said. “I was going to go high glove(-side), but he didn’t give it to me so I just went high blocker.”
Wichita’s win got it one point closer to eighth-place Arizona in the Central Hockey League standings and capped a three-game trilogy filled with as much unpredictable emotion as any other multi-part epic.
The Thunder responded to one of its most energetic performances, a hard-luck loss to Allen on Friday, with a flat showing the following night in a convincing defeat against Quad City.
Wichita appeared to be shutting down again when Arizona took a two-goal lead early in the second period, but Nelson emerged to provide consistency and the Thunder began to play with much more aggressiveness.
Any Sundogs success is likely to come from their offense, and Wichita was quick to latch onto an Arizona weakness in physicality. After Arizona’s third goal, the Thunder ramped up on checking and on intense on-puck defense, and the Sundogs didn’t get many opportunities after that.
Arizona had 14 shots combined over the second and third periods and in overtime, matching its first-period total.
“They have a lot of skill,” Klempa said. “You want to eliminate that and take away from them the space and time and make sure they don’t beat you with it.”
Wichita trails Arizona by four points for the final playoff spot. The Thunder won after two straight home defeats that followed winning two of three at Brampton. McClelland has learned to grasp, if not expect, his team’s inconsistencies.
“Sometimes you don’t understand,” McClelland. “But you do understand because you know sometimes you’re going to run into a hot goaltender; sometimes you’re going to get a late penalty against you; sometimes you’re going to give up three shots in a period and give up two or three goals, which we’ve done this year.
“There’s all kinds of reasons why you’re going to win or lose hockey games, but tonight was a great effort by the team.”
Scoring—1. Arizona, Campbell PP (Pender, Isherwood), 1:47; 2. Wichita, M. Wilson (Flath, Dudas), 10:29; 3. Arizona, Pender (unsassisted), 19:36. Penalties—Wichita, Donaghy (interference), 0:11; Arizona, Clarke (tripping), 4:02; Arizona, Cameron (too many men bench minor), 6:11; Arizona, Clarke (unsportsmanlike conduct), 16:52; Wichita, Gruenke (unsportsmanlike conduct), 16:52.
Scoring—4. Arizona, Baker (Morgan, Engelage), 3:04; 5. Wichita, Walker (McParland, Martens), 16:15; 6. Wichita, Booras PP (Martens, Wilson), 18:46. Penalties—Arizona, Trebish (tripping), 13:40; Arizona, Cameron (slashing), 18:28.
Scoring—None. Penalties—Arizona, Ryd (goalie interference), 1:38; Wichita, Flath (high sticking), 7:13; Wichita, Booras (slashing), 16:42; Arizona, McCready (abuse of officials misconduct), 18:21; Arizona, Tuckerman (slashing), 19:32.
Arizona—Morgan no, Baker no, Limpright no, Ryd yes, Tuckerman no, Clarke no; Wichita, Summers yes, Robinson no, Booras no, Flath no, Lowe no, Klempa yes.
Shots—Arizona 14-5-7-2-0—28; Wichita, 18-10-9-3-1—41. Saves—Arizona, Engelage 37-40; Wichita, Brown 14-17, Nelson 11-11.