The Thunder’s incentive for winning Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against Rio Grande Valley went beyond earning a spot in the Berry Conference finals.
Wichita could avoid the painfully long bus ride back down to Hidalgo, Texas, near the Mexican border, for Game 6. It could relax through five days of rest until the conference finals begin on Friday.
And the Thunder could bask in the relief, pride and sense of accomplishment that came with fending off the pesky Killer Bees, who put up a fight but were ultimately outmanned in the series and during Wichita’s 6-2 win on Saturday at Intrust Bank Arena. The win gave Wichita its first playoff series win since 2005.
Wichita got the test it needed to prepare for a more difficult second series against either Allen or Texas — Texas has a 3-2 series lead — but the Thunder wrapped up the series relatively quickly and now have nearly a week to heal and gain a fresh psychological start.
"We’re just happy that it’s over now," Thunder goalie Adam Russo said. "We don’t have to go on that 14-hour bus ride again. We can get ready for the next series — whoever it is, Texas or Allen."
Wichita got two goals apiece from Daniel Tetrault and RG Flath, who scored six goals during the series. Rio Grande scored first in every game during the series but only once — in its Game 3 win — did the Killer Bees lead 2-0.
A philosophical shift by Rio Grande after Game 1 changed the look of the games that followed but ultimately kept the Bees from supplying enough offense to keep up with Wichita.
The Thunder proved its advantage in physicality throughout the series, but it was never more pronounced than in the opener, when Alex Bourret led a charge to lay heavy hits as frequently as possible. The Bees neglected to engage Wichita, instead opting for aggressiveness toward the net, leading to 33 shots in the opener.
Rio Grande didn’t get that many shots in any other game, and it took a series-low 15 on Saturday. The Bees stood toe-to-toe with the Thunder and occasionally matched its clout, but that limited their organization offensively. Wichita was energized by its muscle and used it to create scoring chances.
"In the playoffs, everybody’s got to be physical," Thunder forward Chris Greene said. "They weren’t so physical off the hop, in Game 1, but they came back and became more physical and they were trying to get after us. We were really good to keep our cool and let them do the extra stuff, and we fed off of it."
Several near misses kept Wichita from striking first throughout the series, and two shots off the post by the Thunder paved the way for Rio Grande to open the scoring again on Saturday on a rebound and goal by Aaron Lee.
It wasn’t all misfortune that kept Wichita at bay early in games — Missouri’s goalie tandem of John Murray and Wylie Rogers could each claim their share of responsibility. Murray was stingy Saturday, stopping 16 of Wichita’s first 17 shots.
But as happened to all of the Bees, Murray was eventually exasperated, allowing three goals in the second and the clincher by Thomas Beauregard early in the third.
"Rogers and Murray played the series of their lives, I think," Russo said. "They were both phenomenal. They were the only reason that they were in the series, because the guys in front of me pretty much dominated."
Russo was plenty dominant, too. Though he didn’t face shots as frequently as Murray and Rogers, he stayed alert and, aside from in Game 3, didn’t allow the Bees much offensive momentum.
Nor did Rio Grande Valley ever find a way to trim the Thunder’s advantages in all facets of the game.
"You’ve got to be prepared regardless — it’s playoffs," Greene said. "It’s good to get a little rest here. We can take a day or two to recover and let our bodies heal a little bit. That’s what the playoffs are about, bumping and grinding, but it will be good to relax a little bit and we’ll get back at it on Monday."