The Thunder unveiled a new motto at the beginning of the season and it seemed appropriate — "Unfinished Business," a nod to its goal of winning a CHL championship following last season’s loss in the CHL Finals.
The slogan was quickly scrapped as the team realized that focusing on the only negative aspect of the season sent the wrong message about just how successful Wichita was. The Thunder matched its regular-season wins record and earned the top seed in the playoffs.
Even though "unfinished business" isn’t verbalized anymore, the Thunder players still want to make amends for last season’s disappointment, when they were wiped out in five games by Fort Wayne.
Wichita begins the postseason Thursday night at Intrust Bank Arena in Game 1 of a seven-game first-round series against Arizona. The Thunder is the No. 2 seed.
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"Anytime you make it to the final and come up short, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” said Thunder defenseman Andrew Martens, who was promoted from Wichita to the American Hockey League before the postseason a year ago. "All that built-up aggression from the offseason, and you just want to get back there and prove that you can do it."
Every move the Thunder made during the offseason was executed with the idea of winning the team’s first championship since it won back-to-back CHL titles in 1994 and 1995.
Wichita lost star scorers such as Alex Bourret, Thomas Beauregard and Aaron Davis, and All-Star forward Matt Robinson didn’t return to the team until midseason after a stint in the ECHL, so Wichita reloaded with players who had success in the CHL in recent seasons.
Bourret, Beauregard and Davis were essentially replaced by Neil Trimm, Chad Painchaud and Ian Lowe, who combined for 32 more points than their predecessors even though Painchaud missed 20 games due to injury.
The Thunder also shored up its defense with full seasons from Martens and last year’s late-season addition Kevin Young, as well as the acquisition of Nathan Lutz, one of the league’s best pure defensemen.
"Those guys are proven performers," Martens said. "(Coach Kevin McClelland) does a good job of putting together the right pieces to the puzzle. He thought that this was the right fit for our team, and they have been very successful for us."
Many acquisitions were made with mutual interest in a championship.
"We have a bunch of new guys, but the guys that came in, they felt like this was their best chance to win a championship," forward RG Flath said. "(Martens) could have gone back to the American League, but he wanted to win and he felt like his best option was here.
"Same with Lutz. He had offers from other teams, but you know what? He felt like his best opportunity was here in Wichita."
The Thunder didn’t just lose talent after last season, it lost leadership. After Martens’ departure, the captaincy was granted to Daniel Tetrault, who played five seasons in Wichita and is the franchise’s top-scoring defenseman.
Martens has settled back into the role as a captain for a team that doesn’t always need one. The Thunder has a seasoned roster and a coach with four Stanley Cup championships, but Martens still provides an influential voice.
It has helped stabilize the Thunder and helped it smoothly infuse new players with returners such as Flath, Matt Summers, Travis Wight and Erick Lizon.
"It’s easy," Martens said. "It’s easy to be a captain of a team with a lot of veterans. We only have (three) rookies on our roster (Jon Madden, Greger Hanson and Grant Rollheiser) … and it makes it real easy because everybody has something to say. It’s easy to lead a group that wants to be successful.
"We have proven leaders at all levels, so it’s been pretty easy for me in that sense. I don’t always have to step up and say stuff, because we have the guys out there that will do it for me, too."