Given the streaky nature of the team, it's been difficult to know exactly what to make of the current version of the Wichita Thunder.
Light years ahead of recent teams, certainly, but perhaps lacking a signature win under new coach Kevin McClelland.
Such a victory finally came on Saturday night, when the Thunder held off the talent-rich, conference-leading Colorado Eagles 5-3 in Intrust Bank Arena.
Colorado fell to 11-4-1, while Wichita snapped a five-game losing streak and improved to 7-7-2.
"I think this sends a bit of a statement throughout the league," said Thunder forward Jesse Bennefield, who had a goal and an assist.
On Friday, Colorado scored five power-play goals and beat the Thunder 7-5. Wichita, though, didn't go down easily, scoring three goals and firing 13 shots in the third period. That period, Bennefield said, contributed to the Thunder's energetic play on Saturday.
"We finished yesterday's game with a lot of desperate hockey, and I think we continued it tonight," he said.
With the victory, the Thunder finally conquered nemesis Andrew Penner, who entered play 5-0 with a 1.29 goals-against average versus Wichita.
Penner hurt his own cause early in the game when his apparent short pass to a teammate was intercepted by Chris Greene, who promptly turned the turnover into a 1-0 lead for the Thunder. The Thunder maintained that margin throughout the period — a key achievement given that Colorado was 0-3 when trailing after the first.
Kevin Ulanski, the league's reigning MVP and Colorado's leading scorer, evened the game on a power-play goal 1 minute, 41 seconds into the second period; the puzzling man advantage came on a delay of game penalty on the Thunder's Lance Galbraith. Galbraith skated onto the ice at the end of the first period, McClelland said.
But the Thunder responded with a goal from its top point-producer, Bennefield. Defenseman Daniel Tetrault, playing his second game since coming off injured reserve, chipped the puck ahead to Bennefield, who beat Penner with a wrister at the 10:01 mark to put the Thunder up 2-1.
The Thunder crowd of 5,011, the largest since the home opener (7,110), gave a cheer. Bennefield breathed a sigh of relief.
"I knew I better bury it or coach would be on me and make me do shootout practice, so I'm glad I got that one," he said.
The Thunder, which never trailed again, increased the margin with goals from Matt Robinson later in the second and Bobby Hughes in the third.
The 4-1 lead appeared comfortable. Perhaps too comfortable.
"I think we took a step back at 4-1 and thought we had the game," said Thunder goalie Marc-Antoine Gelinas, who made 24 saves and improved to 5-2-1. "They have a really good team. No matter what the score is, they just keep pushing."
Indeed, the Eagles trimmed the margin to 4-3 on goals by Adam Hogg and Dylan Stanley. But always-active Troy Schwab sealed the win by driving hard to the net and slipping a backhander past Penner.
The victory gave the Thunder a point in its last seven home games.
"That team (Colorado), they've got a lot of pride," McClelland said. "No lead is safe. It was a good win. We battled hard tonight."
Colorado 0 1 2 — 3 Wichita 1 2 2 — 5
Scoring—1. Wichita, Greene 2 (Richards, Martens) 6:43. Penalties— Wichita, Richards (interference) 2:13; Colorado, Petto (tripping) 17:11; Wichita, Galbraith (delay of game) 20:00.
Scoring—2. Colorado, Ulanski 10 (Nelson, Stanley) 1:41 pp; 3. Wichita, Bennefield 9 (Tetrault) 10:01; 4. Wichita, Robinson 5 (Looby, Davis) 14:20; Penalties— Colorado, Hogg (hooking) 10:49; Colorado, Desmet (high sticking) 13:24.
Scoring—5. Hughes 2 (Bennefield, Wight) 9:20; 6. Colorado, Hogg 5 (Schneekloth, Workman) 9:45; 7. Colorado, Stanley 4 (Peto, Thurston) 16:31; 8. Wichita, Schwab 5 (Wight, Gelinas)18:18. Penalties— Wichita, Wight (tripping) 6:18.
Shots on goal—Colorado 6-8-13—27, Wichita 12-9-9—30. Power play— Colorado 1-3, Wichita 0-3. Goaltenders— Colorado, Penner 25 saves on 30 shots; Wichita, Gelinas 24 saves on 27 shots. Att.— 5,011.