The Thunder will wait for praise and good feelings until after it wins the CHL championship. For now, just about anything can be used as a catalyst for playing angry but inspired hockey.
After Rio Grande Valley won Game 3 to cut Wichita’s lead in the best-of-seven first-round playoff series to 2-1, defenseman Justin Sawyer tweeted, "Everyone is bitter about last night. A lot of the boys are stubborn winners on this team so watch out..."
In Game 4, Wichita allowed the Killer Bees to take the lead in the first period for the fourth straight time, but it took command of the series with a 4-2 win. The Thunder can advance to the Berry Conference finals with a win Saturday night at Intrust Bank Arena.
The series has been perhaps more closely contested than expected, but Wichita has gained control by consistently fighting off the Bees and playing with emotion and aggressiveness.
"Game 3 was definitely a lapse down there," Thunder forward RG Flath said. "We knew they were going to come out hard, but we didn’t play the way we wanted to. We really wanted to come back in Game 4 and prove that we are the best team in this league."
Flath has been one of the Thunder’s most important players during the series, and he has his own source of motivation.
Last week, the CHL published a preview of the series on its website that included a description of Flath’s impressive season as "mediocre."
In fact, Flath delivered an indispensable campaign, totaling 39 points in 42 games and helping hold the team together during numerous injury issues. His plus-20 rating was tied for third on the Thunder even though he played in less than two-thirds of its games after joining the team in mid-December.
Flath has carried over his top-notch production to the playoffs — he scored a hat trick in Game 1 and helped the Thunder win Game 4 with another goal. He has five points in the series and has scored a pair of short-handed goals.
"Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and if they think I’m mediocre then I guess they’re taking me too lightly, then," Flath said. "It doesn’t really bother me. I didn’t come from a hockey hotbed (Park City, Utah) so I’ve been written off more times than I can count. All I can do is control how hard I work and I want to prove all those naysayers wrong."
A stellar season may have helped the Thunder prove some people wrong, but a playoff series win, which eluded them last season, would go farther in accomplishing that.
The Thunder will surely earn respect if it fends off the pesky Bees. Rio Grande has met Wichita’s challenge of physical play in every game but the first, when Alex Bourret’s crushing hits set the tone for a Thunder win.
In Game 3, the Bees scored first and continued to push, taking a 4-0 lead and essentially putting the game away by the third period. In the other games, the Thunder has brushed off the early deficits, using its adaptability to regain tempo control.
"You have to play a 60-minute game," Flath said. "Just because they score the first goal, it doesn’t mean you get down. I’ve been on teams in the past where if we gave up the first goal we’d be deflated. With this team, it doesn’t bother us at all. We’re strong, we have depth, and we’re just going to keep coming at them."