Wichita Thunder rookie Mike Kneeland, by his own estimation, was "gassed," although you wouldn't have known it by the way he finished off an early shift on Friday night.
After Marc Belanger chipped him a pass off the boards, Kneeland skated toward the goal and scored on a wrister from the slot, giving the Thunder a 1-0 lead only 38 seconds into a Central Hockey League exhibition game with the expansion Missouri Mavericks at the Wichita Ice Center. Behind a two-point night from Kneeland and solid outings from two rookie goalies, the Thunder went on to a convincing 3-0 victory in front of about 700 fans.
The two teams meet again at 7:05 tonight in the Ice Center.
Kneeland came highly recommended from former Thunder coach Derek Laxdal, now with Idaho of the East Coast Hockey League, and he showed why on the early goal and, later, when he assisted on Chris Tarkir's shorthanded goal in the third.
"He definitely showed something," coach Brent Bilodeau said. "He can play."
Scrappy Mike Batovanja, sporting a Mohawk, made an impressive return from a knee injury that kept him out nearly all of last season. The 5-foot-7 forward played a physical game, as fans have come to expect, and he pushed the Thunder's lead to 2-0 when he scored off a rebound with just 31 seconds left in the first period.
"Batty's Batty," Bilodeau said. "He's high intensity, works hard, and he's always in the middle of the things. It was good to see."
Thunder goalies Scott Campbell and Jamie Gilbert, both rookies trying to earn a backup job, combined to make 39 saves. Campbell started and made 18 saves before leaving the game to a nice ovation at 9:25 of the second period.
"The guys played really well in front of me," Campbell said. "I didn't face too many high-percentage scoring chances."
Gilbert finished what Campbell started, stopping 21 shots, including some fine work on a Missouri five-on-three power play.
"I thought both goaltenders were solid," Bilodeau said. "Scott made a couple key saves when called upon, and Gilbert made one hell of a save when were on the penalty kill."
Notes — Some Thunder hecklers were in mid-season form. The target of their abuse was Missouri's Andrew Davis, who played 41 games for the Thunder last season. Davis grew so annoyed at the verbal barrage that he turned around on the bench a couple times and yelled back at fans.... Thunder players who didn't suit up were forwards Jason Duda, Damian Surma, Joel Hanson and Henri St. Paul, and defensemen Chris McAllister and Jim Jorgensen. They are all expected to see action tonight.... Goalie Tim Boron, who has been battling illness, is "feeling a little better" and may play tonight, Bilodeau said.... About 150 tickets were left for tonight's game.