For the most part, the Thunder’s desperate pursuit of the Tulsa Oilers for one of the Central Hockey League’s final playoff spots had been productive this month.
Wichita entered the teams’ final regular-season meeting on Saturday within four points of the Oilers, and with an opportunity to carve that deficit in half.
The chase hit a huge pothole in the Thunder’s penultimate home game. Tulsa scored three third-period goals, including two in a 42-second span, and pulled away for a 5-2 victory before a crowd of 6,332 at Intrust Bank Arena.
Forwards Todd Robinson and Matthew Larke each scored two goals for the Oilers, who finished the season series with eight victories in 14 meetings.
The Thunder’s locker room was a solemn place afterward. With four games to play in the regular season, including Sunday’s home finale against Allen, Wichita trails Tulsa by six points in the CHL standings.
“Anytime you’re down to the last five games, I guess you squeeze the stick a little tighter,” said Thunder forward RG Flath, who tied the score at 2-2 with a goal late in the second period. “You’ve got to have confidence in yourself and your teammates. This is just a real tough one to swallow.”
After winning 3-2 at Tulsa on Friday, the Thunder’s quest for a fourth victory over the Oilers in nine days got away from them quickly. Robinson, who batted an airborne puck past Thunder goaltender David Brown for Tulsa’s first goal, scored the go-ahead goal with 7:58 to play in the third.
A short time later, Tulsa’s Blair Macaulay swiped the puck about 30 feet in front of the Thunder net and whistled a shot past Brown for a 4-2 lead.
“Their third goal was a bit of a scramble and they just got a guy open at the net,” Thunder coach Kevin McClelland said. “The fourth goal, we had possession of the puck and just gave it to them. That’s a critical one right there.”
It negated a good start for the Thunder, which struck first 12 minutes into the game on Ian Lowe’s 14th goal of the season. Lowe scored in front of the net after Tomas Klempa’s shot from the right side caromed off Tulsa goaltender Shane Madolora.
Wichita outshot Tulsa 14-6 in the opening period, a statistic McClelland translated as a missed opportunity.
“We could have opened the game up,” McClelland said. “That’s where you’ve got to bear down. We could have used a big power-play goal, and our power play didn’t show up.”
After Robinson tied the score less than five minutes into the second, Tulsa cashed in on a power play for a 2-1 lead. Larke stationed himself in front of the net and redirected Ryan Menei’s pass into the net.
But Flath, the owner of a game-winning goal in one of the teams’ earlier meetings, scored with 2:40 to play in the second as Tulsa’s Michel Beausoleil was exiting the penalty box after being called for hooking.
“I thought we had some pretty good confidence going into that third period,” Flath said. “It just seemed like they were able to capitalize on two mistakes that we made, and we weren’t able to get any by them.”
The Thunder pulled Brown late in the game during a power play for a 6-on-4 advantage. The net remained empty for most of the final two minutes, and Larke filled it with a shot from the blue line with nine seconds remaining for the game’s final goal.
With Sunday’s game against Allen followed by three at Arizona to end the regular season, the Thunder’s fate got further out of their control Saturday.
“Guys have got to play in these games and excel,” McClelland said. “That’s how you build character and get better.
“It’s a position that we’ve put ourselves in because of the start we had, so there’s not much we can do. You’ve just got to go out and perform.”
First period — 1, Wichita, Lowe (Klempa, Booras), 11:41. Penalties — Tallent, Tulsa (interference), 4:44; Gruenke, Wichita (slashing), 7:23; Booras, Wichita (interference), 17:42.
Second period — 2, Tulsa, Robinson (Beausoleil, Larke), 4:42. 3, Tulsa, Larke (Menei, Gordon), 9:01 (pp). 4m Wichita, Flath (Summers, Klempa), 17:32. Penalties — Lowe, Wichita (slashing), 7:13; Flath, Wichita (roughing), 7:34; Beausoleil, Tulsa (roughing), 7:34; Barlock, Tulsa (slashing), 10:06; M.Wilson, Wichita (tripping), 12:31; Beausoleil, Tulsa (hooking), 15:13.
Third period — 5, Tulsa, Robinson (Beausoleil, Larke), 12:02. 6, Tulsa, Macaulay (Fisher), 12:44. 7, Tulsa, Larke, 19:51 (en). Penalties — Flath, Wichita (slashing), 1:58; Macaulay, Tulsa (high sticking), 7:38; Cescon, Tulsa (holding stick), 16:03.
Power plays — Tulsa 1-5, Wichita 0-5.
Shots — Tulsa 6-1007—23, Wichita 4-6-6—26.
Goalies — Tulsa, Madolora 26 shots, 24 saves; Wichita, Brown 22-18.
T — 2:25. A — 6,332.