The Thunder saved its season with a 4-3 win over Fort Wayne on Saturday night. The Thunder rallied from an early deficit, and Thomas Beauregard scored with 6:20 to go to give Wichita the lead before it held on in the final 36 seconds.
Wichita still trails the best-of-seven Central Hockey League finals 3-1, but it avoided the sweep and further embarrassment after losing the first three games by a combined score of 19-9.
Fort Wayne pulled its goalie in the final minute which, combined with a Wichita penalty, gave the Komets a 6-on-4 advantage late. Crisp passing led to an open-net chance for Fort Wayne, but a shot hit the far post, a common theme for the Komets.
It took minutes for Fort Wayne to gain a clear advantage in Game 3; Saturday it took mere seconds.
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RG Flath used an open hand to push the puck out of the crease on a near Komets goal, giving Fort Wayne a penalty shot with 19 seconds off the clock. Mike Vaskivuo netted it to give Fort Wayne a quick lead.
Wichita’s responses to demoralizing turnarounds during the series have been delayed and short-lived, so there wasn’t yet cause to increasing the Thunder’s chances when it tied it 1-1 less than seven minutes later.
The true cause for hope came when Wichita tied it for a second time, scoring with 22 seconds left in the first period, creating momentum and eliminating the danger the troubling start created.
The Thunder has been unable to overcome Fort Wayne’s speed, and some of Wichita’s breakaways offered the best evidence that it was a step slow. Thunder forwards couldn’t create space to get favorable shots and much of Fort Wayne goalie Nick Boucher’s work was done by his defensemen.
Wichita combatted its weaknesses by playing to its strengths, which Fort Wayne’s tempo control made difficult during the first three games. The Thunder played noticeably physical for the first time in the series, perhaps not intimidating Fort Wayne but at least slowing it down.
Against overmatched opponents in the first two rounds, Wichita rarely fought, and in the Finals the threat hasn’t been presented. But with several other strategies exhausted, Wichita turned to trading blows, as Justin Sawyer ultimately bested in a long, back-and-forth fight in the second.
The Thunder’s muscle was an important change of pace, but Fort Wayne’s aggressiveness was rarely limited. The Komets outshot Wichita 36-20, taking 10 shots before the Thunder had one.
Goalie Bryan Hogan’s inexperience was obvious in Game 3, when Fort Wayne’s relentless attack overwhelmed him, but Saturday Hogan was a major reason why Game 5 will occur.
He was saved by three shots off the post in the second, but he was steadfast after allowing the penalty shot goal, enabling Wichita to mount a rally. Hogan started his first game of the postseason Thursday and was called into duty again as regular starter Adam Russo is out with a concussion.
Wichita also played without forward Alex Bourret, who was injured in Game 1, also a concussion.
Wichita 2 1 1 — 4
Fort Wayne 2 1 0 — 3
Scoring—1. Fort Wayne, Vaskivuo (penalty shot), 0:19; 2. Wichita, Summers PP (Chappell, Tetrault), 6:49; 3. Fort Wayne, Auger PP (Thomas, Lovell), 15:50; 4. Wichita, Summers (Tetrault, Greene), 19:38. Penalties—Fort Wayne, Rizk (tripping), 3:33; Fort Wayne, Maggio (interference), 6:25; Fort Wayne, Henley (holding stick), 8:48; Fort Wayne, Chaumont (too many men bench minor), 10:39; Wichita, Sawyer (cross checking), 14:05; Wichita, Tetrault (tripping), 16:43.
Scoring—5. Fort Wayne, Rizk PP (Molle, Thorne), 5:52; 6. Wichita, Davis (Beauregard, Tetrault), 13:40. Penalties—Wichita, Lizon (roughing), 3:54; Wichita, Chappell (high sticking), 14:52; Wichita, Sawyer (fighting major), 18:00; Fort Wayne, Schrock (fighting major), 18:00.
Scoring—7. Wichita, Beauregard (Wight, Davis). Penalties—Fort Wayne, Chaulk (high sticking), 9:00; Wichita, Robinson (holding stick), 9:15; Wichita, Tetrault (interference), 10:55; Fort Wayne, Thorne (boarding), 16:10; Wichita, Tetrault (interference), 16:37; Wichita, Tetrault (boarding), 19:24.
Power play—Wichita 1 for 6 Fort Wayne 2 for 8. Shots—Wichita 13-5-3—21, Fort Wayne 19-10-10—39. Saves—Wichita, Hogan 36 on 39 shots; Fort Wayne, Boucher 17-21.