Sometime next week, the Thunder will return to Wichita. Just days ago, that idea probably had most thinking of celebratory occasions — either returning home to win the CHL championship or revel in having won it on the road.
Two days has changed plenty regarding the circumstances of an eventual homecoming.
In perhaps the final home game of the season, the Thunder turned in its most disappointing performance, falling 6-3 to Fort Wayne in Game 2 of the CHL Finals at Intrust Bank Arena.
The following three games are in Fort Wayne, where the Komets can capture the title and where the Thunder hopes to save its season long enough to get the series back to Wichita. That scenario appears unlikely after Sunday, but the Thunder has three days off to figure out a new plan.
"Pretty frustrating two losses, especially tonight," Thunder captain Daniel Tetrault said. "We’ve got to come back on the road and stay together as a team. It’s a pretty tough feeling right now in the dressing room. All the guys are pretty disappointed. They just outplayed us, flat out."
The Komets dominated every facet, staving off half-hearted Thunder attempts to rally after Fort Wayne took control by scoring three goals in the second period.
Thunder goalie Adam Russo, the catalyst for Wichita’s impressive play during the first two postseason series, has been reduced to average — he was pulled in the second with Wichita trailing 4-1.
It got worse. Wichita had hope after scoring late in the second to make it 4-2, but midway through the third Fort Wayne scored two goals in 16 seconds.
Fort Wayne did to Wichita what the Thunder did to previous playoff opponents Rio Grande Valley and Texas, eliminating Wichita’s strengths and forcing the Thunder to play reactive hockey instead of dictating the pace.
"They’re the best team in the league, they proved it all year," Fort Wayne centerColin Chaulk said. "We’re just trying to battle. We were able to get good bounces tonight. We’re in a good position right now, but we’ve done nothing. It’s the first to win four. I know they know that on the other side and, believe me, we’re nervous here, too."
Wichita scored first as Kevin Seibel emerged with the puck during a scrum in the crease and lifted a shot that bounced into the goal. It was unconventional but effective, ultimately proving to be one of few bounces that went Wichita’s way.
That was Wichita’s only lead, as Fort Wayne scored the next three goals to prompt Russo’s benching. Russo entered the series with a 1.98 goals against average, but it has shot up after he allowed eight goals in the first two games of the series.
The Thunder played without star forward Alex Bourret during the second. Bourret was hurt in Game 1 when he crashed back first into the boards. After staying down for several minutes, Bourret eventually returned to that game but was too injured to contribute beyond the first period on Sunday.
After the game, Bourret said he had a concussion and a broken rib.
“Everyone is a little banged up,” Thunder forward Chris Chappell said. “But it’s playoffs. You have to dig deep and work through it. There’s a maximum five games left, so we’ve got to suck it up and
get through it.”
The Thunder is attempting to win its first CHL title in 17 years and is playing in the Finals for the first time since 1998. So far, the big stage has overwhelmed Wichita — and so has Fort Wayne.
Wichita has been unable to match the Komets’ speed, goalie play and apparent desire. The Thunder might not be able to weaken Fort Wayne’s advantage in the first two categories, but it has control over the third and a determination to fix it.
"It’s very disappointing to lose both games at home," Tetrault said. "But it’s over with. Now we have to go on the road and play well."