The last time Adam Russo played in Wichita, he left Game 2 of the CHL championship series with a concussion, part of the Thunder’s late-season tailspin that soured some fans on an otherwise fantastic season.
Russo learned that he could never please the fans who he said thought his injury was fabricated. Saturday, Russo, now with Arizona, led his new team to a 2-1 shootout victory over the Thunder at Intrust Bank Arena.
Most of the fans warmly welcomed Russo back to Wichita, but some of the more vocal hecklers were audible during the first period. Russo said the criticism never stopped, but the most important game on his schedule so far turned out to be his most impressive and most satisfying.
"The fans are great, even though some hate me, some like me," Russo said. "That’s just the way it goes. Even at the end, once I got off the ice, I had some guy telling me I faked my concussion last year. Some people are still bitter, and it’s too bad because I don’t think I would have gotten all the way there and just quit on the boys. I still feel terrible about that, and it’s something I’ve got to deal with."
Wichita goalie Kevin Regan played just as well as Russo for the first 65 minutes and through the first five rounds of the shootout, but Derek LeBlanc scored against him in round six on a bizarre goal that was just enough to break Regan’s concentration.
LeBlanc lost the puck briefly as he came toward the goal on Regan’s left side. LeBlanc’s bobble distracted Regan, who couldn’t recover in time to make the save.
"When he lost the puck there, it threw me off a little bit," Regan said. "I didn’t think he was going to get it back. It was like slow motion. It was kind of strange. That’s what it is — we needed a point tonight, and I’ve got to make the saves in an important spot, and I didn’t get it done."
The only former Thunder teammate to face Russo in the shootout, Matt Summers, gave Wichita its only goal. Les Reaney, Wichita’s shooter in round six, didn’t get away a clean shot.
The Thunder scored first in the opening period when Russo got caught out of position on a rebound, leading to essentially an open net for Neil Trimm. After that, Wichita’s recent offensive difficulties and Russo’s determination combined to keep the Thunder off the scoreboard.
After going 0 for 5 on the power play Saturday, Wichita has failed to convert on its last 23 extra-man chances. The Thunder’s effort was superior to a plodding performance Friday, but that didn’t translate to added offense.
Wichita’s struggles are perhaps weighing most heavily on Regan, who has lost four times this season while allowing three goals or fewer. Wichita has totaled three goals in its last three home games, all losses.
"You’d rather play bad and win — you feel better," Regan said. "It’s tough. If you’re playing good, you need to come up with a big save, you need to go 5-for-5 in the shootout. If you’re playing bad and the team is playing well, they might bail you out … but when they’re not scoring, you’ve got to win one. (Losing) 2-1 in a shootout is more frustrating."
Russo didn’t silence everyone, but he got what he came for.
"I think it was just more preparation-wise," Russo said. "I just wanted it so bad. A lot of it was adrenaline, just pure adrenaline. I had to do a job, and it went well. It just went well."