During the last two months, Thunder forward Chris Chappell has evolved from a hockey player who received more playing time due to teammates’ injuries to one who has himself become indispensable.
It was a long distance to travel for Chappell, who was little more than an extra piece for the first half of the season. When Wichita’s best scorers began to go down with injuries in December, Chappell was one of few remaining options.
Starting with a game in late December that broke a long stretch without a goal, Chappell has proven himself as one of the Thunder’s most important players. He took his improved scoring into the postseason, where his overtime goal helped Wichita defeat Texas in Game 5 of the Berry Conference finals last Saturday.
Wichita clinched the series with a win in Game 6, and it starts the CHL Finals on Saturday at Intrust Bank Arena against the winner of Thursday’s Missouri-Fort Wayne Game 7.
"We had a couple unfortunate injuries in the second half of the season," Chappell said. "I was able to get more of an opportunity. I find that once you get a bigger opportunity you’ll have more success."
Chappell, 24, joined the Thunder late in the offseason after failing to make the roster of Greenville in the ECHL. Wichita’s team was mostly set at that point, and Chappell found it difficult to force his way into the plans.
Necessity hastened the process, as most of Wichita’s scoring forwards missed time — some significant — near the beginning of the calendar year. Chappell scored four points and no goals in his first 24 games.
"He came in a little later and we already had guys inserted in situations so he didn’t get the ice time he’s getting now," Thunder coach Kevin McClelland. "Confidence-wise he was probably wondering why he didn’t make Greenville. He can definitely play at that level."
Chappell (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) found other ways to contribute, aiding on defense and penalty kills before his chance finally came.
He broke through with a goal on Jan. 14 and has been one of Wichita’s best scorers since. During the final 26 regular-season games, Chappell scored 20 points. His signature game was a hat trick on Jan. 29 in a 5-1 win over Quad City.
"I was confident that I could take advantage of the opportunity," Chappell said. "Most importantly, I wanted to help the team win."
After playing mostly on the wings, Chappell has found a home at center. He’s replacing Aaron Davis, who has struggled to permanently return from a lower-body injury that has had him mostly unavailable since early March.
Replicating Davis’ production and spiritual lift is a tall order, but Chappell’s 12 playoff points and plus-10 rating are both tied for second on the team and a product of added aggressiveness. He has two postseason game-winning goals.
"He’s been unbelievable for our hockey club," McClelland said. "He’s played really well at center. He’s a big body that skates well, and he gets a little more room at center. He’s been at left wing or right wing most of the year, then when (Davis) gets hurt he goes to center and really takes off."
Chappell’s importance is most evident in Wichita’s 12-2 record, including playoffs, when he has scored a goal. The Thunder has won all three games in which he has scored during the postseason.
"It could be a coincidence or it could mean that I always score when we’re winning games," Chappell joked. "Right place at the right time, I think."