Writing a formula for beating the Thunder in a seven-game series could most likely be accomplished by a novice scribe and a casual hockey observer. The simplicity is in producing it; the difficulty comes in attempting to execute it.
The formula would most likely include equaling Wichita’s athleticsm and depth, no easy task but not impossible, either.
The real secret on the list of ways to beat Wichita is to match its relentless attitude, a necessity for the playoffs but something the Thunder has carried with it since November, when it started the season with three shootout wins in its first six games.
The Thunder continued its postseason trend of allowing the first goal on Friday against Texas, but it erased the deficit in the second period and beat the Brahmas 3-1 in Game 1 of the Berry Conference finals at Intrust Bank Arena. RG Flath and Chris Chappell had second-period goals; Adam Russo stopped 31 shots.
Wichita, trying to win its first CHL championship since 1995, showed little rust in its first game in six days. The Thunder stayed true to its style against a team with similar components, but another one that couldn’t keep up.
"It’s just the way we’ve sort of built our team all year long," Russo said. "I don’t want to say it’s annoying, but it’s the way we’ve been all season long — there’s battle in everyone. It shows character, and there’s a lot of character on this team."
Rio Grande Valley took 1-0 leads in each of the five first-round games against the Thunder, and Texas also put Wichita in an early hole.
This one felt different, though. Whereas the Thunder was the aggressor in most of the opening-round games, Texas clearly outplayed Wichita early on Friday. The Brahmas outshot Wichita 10-7 and congested the area near the crease enough to prevent the Thunder from getting many clean shots.
"Let’s give Texas credit, they played well," Thunder coach Kevin McClelland said. "But I don’t think we played up to par in that first period. Sometimes, that happens after a long layoff. We’re not even going to go there as an excuse because we’ve got to be ready for those situations."
Despite the ominous opening, Wichita’s recent history proved there was little for the Thunder to worry about. Its early deficits speak less about an inability to start fast and more to its opponents efforts to match Wichita’s early energy.
Wichita doesn’t so much overwhelm foes after the first period as much as it maintains its intensity while playing physically and wearing down the opposition. The Thunder has scored 12 second-period goals in six postseason games, a testament to its endless barrage of capable scorers.
Friday, Flath tied it with a laser past Texas goalie Brad Fogal, and Chappell gave Wichita the lead with a similar shot off a faceoff. The Thunder maintained the lead during the furious final seconds before Chappell scored an empty-net goal on a bank shot while trying to clear the puck.
"I don’t even know how to explain it, really," Russo said. "It almost seems like we need to get hit a couple times to get into the game, then the guys start picking it up. It’s weird to watch. Sometimes it’s frustrating and sometimes it’s funny, because we just find a way to do good things."
Russo played his most impressive game in net for Wichita. A day after celebrating his 29th birthday, he shook off Texas’ early goal and owned the crease while facing a fast-paced game he didn’t see in the first round.
Russo’s opening-round work mostly consisted of waiting for Rio Grande Valley to maintain the puck long enough around Wichita’s forceful checks to take a shot. Those games didn’t have him on the highest alert, but he was forced to keep his guard up on Friday as Texas attempted 32 shots.
Wichita also was boosted by the return of forward Aaron Davis, who had been out since March 2 with a lower-body injury.
"Our guys always find a way to battle back," McClelland said. "It’d be nice, maybe one game, for us to get out of the starting gates a little bit.… Again, it’s a good sign from your hockey club when those things don’t affect you and you keep playing the full 60 minutes."
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