The only odd ritual in the locker room after the Thunder’s 4-2 win over Rio Grande Valley on Friday night was Wichita backup goalkeeper Bryan Hogan removing RG Flath’s skates in reverence of Flath’s hat trick.
The more plausible scenario would have been the presence of an empty jar, usually reserved for money contributed by the Thunder players who didn’t level a big hit against their opponent.
The Thunder played as if a lack of brute force would get them punished, and they overwhelmed and wore down the Killer Bees to win the opening game of their best-of-seven CHL first-round playoff series.
Seemingly every player had a hand in beating up Rio Grande. They were following the lead of versatile forward Alex Bourret, who delivered the most powerful — and at times frightening — hits on a Killer Bees squad that had no match for Bourret or his teammates.
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"The whole team came out tonight and played physical," Thunder coach Kevin McClelland said.
Bourret seemed to have some pent-up aggression after being suspended for the final two games of the regular season. In the three prior games, Bourret drew game misconduct penalties and was ejected.
Bourret harnessed his intensity Friday but didn’t hold back as he charged toward Rio Grande players and slammed them into the boards with booming checks that put the Killer Bees in a haze.
It didn’t take long for the other Thunder players to match Bourret’s blasts — about every player got his licks in, with the hardest hits being executed by Kevin Seibel, Daniel Tetrault, Dustin Donaghy, Chris Greene and Bourret.
"The first three shifts he had he absolutely bone-jarred guys," Flath said. "That just set the tone for the games, and his line-mates and teammates see that. You see that effort he’s putting in and want to match that if not do more than he can."
Rio Grande goalie Wylie Rogers stopped all of Wichita’s 13 first-period shots, and the Killer Bees took a 1-0 lead on a power-play goal by Brandon Campos.
The 1-0 lead wasn’t a big deal to the Thunder, but it was surely a confidence booster for Rio Grande, which was undefeated during the regular season when leading after one period.
Ultimately, Rio Grande couldn’t keep up with the Thunder or match Wichita’s depth. The Thunder scored the first three goals of the second, with Bourret scoring the tying goal and assisting on the tiebreaker. His tone-setting checks paved the way for his scoring.
"I get more in the game," Bourret said. "I talk a lot on the ice, so when I talk I get in my game more; when I get physical and when I score a goal it gets me going, too."
Bourret, Flath or Thomas Beauregard were involved in all of Wichita’s goals. Beauregard had precise passes on the Thunder’s first two goals, and Flath scored three times on four shots.
The Thunder was 3-0 against the Killer Bees during the regular season and stayed confident and resolved after Rio Grande took an early lead. Bourret, a former first-round draft pick, gave Wichita a lift in several facets.
"He plays physical and he’s got the skill," McClelland said. "He brings so much to the table — power play, penalty kill, playmaker, physical."
1 1 0 — 2Wichita0 3 1 — 4
Scoring—1. Rio Grande Valley, Campos PP (Gendur, Wilson). Penalties—Rio Grande Valley, Klempa (kneeing), 1:15; Wichita, Greene (tripping), 13:08; Wichita, Greene (roughing), 14:26.
Scoring—2. Wichita, Bourret (Beauregard, Tetrault), 2:00; 3. Wichita, Flath (Beauregard, Bourret), 4:02; 4. Wichita, Flath (Beauregard), 14:23; 5. Rio Grande Valley, Wilson (Balan, Leavold), 17:42. Penalties—Rio Grande Valley, Dixon (hooking), 5:53.
Scoring—6. Wichita, Flath SH (Bourret), 2:12. Penalties—Wichita, Chappell (interference), 1:35; Rio Grande Valley, Dixon (slashing), 9:57; Wichita, Young (unsportsmanlike conduct), 9:57.
Power play—Rio Grande Valley 1 for 3, Wichita 0 for 2. Shots on goal—Rio Grande Valley 12-12-9—33, Wichita 13-15-9—37. Saves—Rio Grande Falley, Rogers 33 saves on 37 shots; Wichita, Russo 31-33.