Thursday’s Central Hockey League coaches poll has the Thunder at the top, which is meaningful in one way and not so meaningful in another.
Wichita is in third place in the real standings, and the poll, used to gauge teams’ recent progress, suggests it might be primed to make a move. But the poll loses importance as the Thunder recognizes its play alone will be responsible for a jump over Fort Worth and Allen.
The Thunder has perhaps its best chance to make a dent in the three-point lead those teams carried before Thursday’s games. Wichita plays at home three times between Saturday and Tuesday, including twice against Allen. After that, the Thunder plays nine of its final 15 games on the road.
"It’s a tough time of the year right now," Thunder forward RG Flath said. "We have (18) games left and you can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel. Right now it’s a great time that we can jump on teams that are a little sluggish.… Teams are a little distracted, maybe, and we can jump on them and hopefully steal a bunch of points coming up."
The Thunder has experienced some of that malaise, too, but those bouts with inconsistency must be kept to a minimum in order for Wichita to overtake its current superiors.
"It just comes down to mental toughness," Flath said. "It’s been a grind so far with all the travel and all that stuff. Sometimes you’ve got to buck up and play mental games with yourself and tell yourself that it’s not as bad as you think it is."
For most of the season, Wichita has fought Allen for the top spot in the standings, and for most of the season the Americans have held off the Thunder. A surge by the Thunder and a recent seven-game losing streak by Allen has shrunk the Americans’ lead, but as the season nears its final month the Thunder will be scoreboard-watching another opponent.
Fort Worth, winners of five straight and eight out of 10, tied Allen with 63 points entering Thursday. The Brahmas have one player with more than 40 points (Allen has three and Wichita has four), but low-scoring games have proven their specialty. The Thunder is 5-2 against them this season with one game remaining, March 6 in Texas.
"They’re so good defensively that they don’t give up many opportunities," Flath said. "They thrive on winning 2-1, 1-0, 3-2 — those kind of games where you really have to battle and grind it out. ...They’re definitely a team we have to watch out for and be concerned about."
Another team Wichita matches up well against is Denver, which visits Intrust Bank Arena on Saturday night. The Cutthroats, in their first season, are a contender in fourth place.
With three of the CHL’s top eight scorers, Denver is polar opposite from Fort Worth but the Thunder has humbled the Cutthroats just as much. In their first meetings last month in Denver, the Thunder went ahead 7-0 in each game and outscored Denver 14-1 in two wins.
Wichita will have to play tougher to make up for the absence of one of its fastest players, Greger Hanson. The Thunder’s rookie forward has missed three games since leaving a game at Tulsa eight days ago due to injury.
The Thunder has gone 1-1-1 in Hanson’s absence with two one-goal performance. Flath has scored in two of the three games and has four goals in Wichita’s last five.
"Injuries happen throughout the year and sometimes guys get hot at the right time and sometimes they go cold," Flath said. "You try to keep it as even as possible so you don’t have those peaks or valleys where you get too high on yourself or, when you get too low, you’re flying way below the ducks."