If Thunder coach Kevin McClelland was ever sure that his hockey team would emerge from the malaise that has scourged it all season, that confidence has given way to a different feeling.
“You hope,” McClelland said. “You hope.”
The hope for the Thunder to reach the postseason decreased again with Arizona’s 3-1 win Sunday at Intrust Bank Arena.
With a chance to get within two points of Arizona for the eighth and final Central Hockey League playoff spot, Wichita instead fell six points behind the Sundogs with 12 games to play. The teams meet three times in the final weekend in a series that could reward the final postseason bid, but the Thunder’s recent woes make positive projections difficult.
It’s becoming tougher to see Wichita in the playoffs because it has fallen short in every opportunity for a defining victory and because the Thunder often loses even in games it plays relatively well.
That happened again Sunday, when Wichita outshot the Sundogs 32-23 and got a brief surge from a tying goal in the second period. The Thunder can often sustain energy for a while, but those efforts frequently go for naught when a missed assignment or lazy play on the puck leads to an opponent goal.
Wichita has gone 1 for 19 in power plays over its last five games, another example of missed chances, and has dropped to third in power-play efficiency, a category it once led.
“Just because we make those glaring errors at the wrong times,” McClelland said. “You can’t do it. And our power play has gone absolutely cold as ice. That’s fine, but we’re giving up shorthanded goals (four in the last six games). We almost gave up another one again.
“Guys got to get hungry on that. They’re told what to do and how to do it, and they’ve got to get hungry.”
Wichita tied it 1-1 in the second about a minute after Arizona took its first lead. The Thunder was seemingly headed to the intermission break for an upbeat regrouping, but Arizona scored with 35 seconds left in the period.
A missed assignment was the final culprit in the goal by Kevin Baker, but McClelland saw a breakdown well before the puck found the net.
“That’s the end result, but the whole play happened at their blue line,” McClelland said. “Everything starts somewhere – everybody just wants to look at the end result, but as coaches you don’t. It shouldn’t have even gone down there is what I’m saying.”
The Thunder is closely removed from back-to-back appearances in the CHL finals, but a third trip has seemed out of the cards since a slow first month when Wichita was beset by injuries. Even though the teams are starkly different, this year’s version of the Thunder can’t avoid comparisons to the last two.
Those teams faced deficits with determination while the current Thunder, especially without injured Matt Robinson, its leading goal scorer, doesn’t possess the firepower to produce regular rallies.
“We had a lot more depth last year,” McClelland said. “With a guy like Robinson out, we could just a plug another guy in there. We don’t have that. …Our depth this year is not there.”
Scoring—None. Penalties—Arizona, Geoffrion (unsportsmanlike conduct), 0:36; Wichita, Gruenke (unsportsmanlike conduct), 0:36; Arizona, Isherwood (unsportsmanlike conduct), 5:47; Wichita, M. Wilson (unsportsmanlike conduct), 5:47; Arizona, Couch (tripping), 17:55.
Scoring—1. Arizona, Velischek (Geoffrion, Ryd), 2:29; 2. Wichita, McParland (Lowe, Booras), 3:34; 3. Arizona, Baker (Coccimiglio, Velischek), 19:25. Penalties—Arizona, Trebish (hooking), 5:14; Wichita, Klempa (holding), 8:38.
Scoring—4. Arizona, Baker (Coccigmiglio, Rutherford), 13:52. Penalties—Arizona, Tuckerman (unsportsmanlike conduct), 5:38; Wichita, J. Wilson (unsportsmanlike conduct), 5:38; Arizona, Couch (roughing), 15:21; Arizona, Tuckerman (handling the puck), 17:24.
Power play—Arizona 0-1, Wichita 0-4. Shots—Arizona 13-5-5—23, Wichita 11-10-11—32. Saves—Arizona, Engelage 31-32; Wichita, Nelson 20-23.