The Thunder had more new feelings than just playing in the CHL finals for the first time since 1998, but the thrill of the first foray into the final round was overwhelmed by other uncharted territory that wasn’t as welcoming.
Wichita hadn’t lost at home during the playoffs, nor had it fallen behind in either of its previous postseason series, but Fort Wayne ended those streaks with a 5-3 win on Saturday night in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series at Intrust Bank Arena.
The Thunder rallied from a pair of two-goal deficits but couldn’t completely erase its sluggish start. Wichita hadn’t been outplayed in the playoffs as thoroughly as it was for most of Saturday’s game, nor had goalie Adam Russo delivered an unproductive performance in front of friendly fans.
Chris Auger’s second goal proved decisive. He scored soon after Wichita forward Alex Bourret went down with an injury that looked horrific but turned out to be not so serious. Fort Wayne added an empty-net goal before the buzzer sounded. Game 2 is today.
"Our first period wasn’t a very good period for our hockey club," Thunder coach Kevin McClelland said. "We didn’t do anything to come out of that period ahead. In the second period we got a little bit better and in the third period we had the opportunity to get a go-ahead goal but didn’t."
Wichita hadn’t played since Monday, while Fort Wayne wrapped up a seven-game series win over Missouri on Thursday night in Indiana. The Komets’ readiness and the Thunder’s rust was evident, as Fort Wayne had a 2-0 lead just past the halfway point of the first.
The Komets were outracing Wichita to the net, getting prime scoring opportunities and making the most of them. Their second goal came on a perfectly-timed connection between Brett Smith and Bobby Chaumont that outwitted Wichita’s defense and led to a goal by Chaumont.
At one point early in the second, Fort Wayne had doubled Wichita’s shot total (10-5) and the Thunder looked as if it wouldn’t threaten to dent that deficit.
"It’s all a mindset," Auger said. "You take it each way, and we felt confident after two wins coming in here. It definitely showed in our first period, and it obviously showed that they had some time off when they came back in the second."
The Thunder fell behind in previous home games because of a combination of bad luck and a failure to execute early scoring chances. Wichita has thrived in the postseason due to an ability to adjust and regroup quickly, but it took a little longer on Saturday.
Garrett Bembridge, getting more ice time because of injuries to Chris Greene and Aaron Davis, scored his first goal of the postseason to make it 2-1.
The momentum from that goal was temporarily halted when Auger scored with less than eight minutes to go in the second, seemingly guaranteeing Wichita would enter the third trailing.
But Thomas Beauregard scored twice in 78 seconds, tying it and essentially erasing the poor start. The goals gave Wichita especially improved odds because the Thunder has often played its best this year during third periods.
"You know that team is going to come back with a big push," Auger said. "We knew it was coming, but we didn’t help ourselves. We played tentative and we made mistakes and they capitalized."
Early in the third period, Bourret, who assisted on two Wichita goals, slid hard into the boards. It appeared the back of Bourret’s head took the greatest impact, and he laid face down on the ice for about five minutes.
Bourret was rolled over by medical personnel and he eventually sat up, collecting himself before skating off with the help of Beauregard and Daniel Tetrault.
The injury was apparently less serious than it appeared, because Bourret missed one before returning. Wichita was unable to build on that emotional lift before Auger’s goal gave the Thunder bad feelings they hadn’t previously experienced.
"If you win or lose a game, you can’t really dwell on the win or loss," Thunder forward Matt Robinson said. "You just kind have to move on — that’s why it’s a best-of-seven series. It would be harder if it was just a one-game playoff. Guys have come back from (worse). Guys are a little ticked off right now, but we get over it and be ready for (today)."