After Fort Wayne scored to go ahead by three goals during the second period Thursday night, Thunder players Travis Wight and Kevin Seibel skated to goalie Bryan Hogan and patted him on the helmet.
It appeared to be a conciliatory gesture — "Don't worry, kid, it'll be over soon."
Starting for the first time in the playoffs, Hogan needed all the encouragement he could get. Though he was at the end of Fort Wayne's scoring barrage, his presence was only a minor obstacle in the Komets' 7-3 win at War Memorial Coliseum.
Now it appears the series will be over soon, too. Even more so than it did after Fort Wayne won the first two games of the best-of-seven Central Hockey League finals in Wichita. The Komets can wrap up the sweep with a win on Saturday night.
"We're not playing like men this series," Thunder defenseman Justin Sawyer said. "If we lose the next game, we shouldn't be upset because we gave them the games."
Hogan hadn't started since the finale of the regular season more than a month ago and played minimally behind starter Adam Russo during the postseason. But Russo was unavailable Thursday due to a concussion, pressing Hogan into duty.
Wichita was also without its top offensive playmaker, Alex Bourret, who was injured in Game 1 and has missed the last five periods. Bourret would have helped the Thunder keep pace with Fort Wayne's forwards, but it might not have mattered much because Wichita has had trouble scoring even with him in the lineup.
Since scoring eight goals against Texas in Game 2 of the Berry Conference finals, Wichita hasn't scored more than three goals in seven consecutive games. The only way to combat that is to limit its opponent and keep games low-scoring, but that notion disappeared when the Thunder fell behind 2-0 after less than four minutes.
"We have to play a lot smarter," Thunder coach Kevin McClelland said. "We can compete with those guys, we just have to keep it simple."
The Thunder is going in the wrong direction toward proving it can match Fort Wayne in any facet of the game. Wichita has lost by scores of 5-3, 6-3 and 7-3. Fort Wayne is adjusting quickly to Wichita's adjustments, and the Thunder hasn't begun any game as the aggressor.
Though it came in brief flurries, Wichita showed fight Thursday. It outplayed Fort Wayne for the second half of the first period, cutting the lead to 2-1 and briefly slowing down the Komets.
A near tie happened when Aaron Davis missed an open net in the second period, and the mistake was paid for. Fort Wayne scored on back-to-back power-play chances, pushing the lead to 5-1 and essentially out of range for Wichita.
"Fort Wayne's a good team, but so are we," Hogan said. "We just need to bring everything we've got to the table. There's breakdowns here and there, but it's hard to say. It could be a million things."
The Thunder attempted another rally, scoring two goals in the second to make it 5-3. Wichita expended a significant amount of energy attempting a comeback that was mostly hopeless, then surrendered the final two goals for a lopsided outcome.
Wichita is doing its best to convince itself that it isn't severely overmatched, but it's becoming more difficult each game. Fort Wayne gets more enthusiastic during every shift, eager to put games out of reach, while the Thunder barely hangs on.
The Thunder can save its season Saturday, but it's probably more concerned with saving face.
"I'm not really sure how they're coming out with all that intensity, but we've got to bring it next game," Thunder forward RG Flath said. "We know they're going to bring it in the first 10 minutes, so we've got to pick it up a notch."