The Thunder is at the end of its hockey season, but it looks more like the beginning.
Near-daily practices without games to prepare for is more reminiscent of training camp than of a team preparing for the Central Hockey League finals. Because of sweeps by the Thunder in the first two rounds and odd scheduling due to building conflicts, Wichita has had lots of idle time between series.
The Thunder wrapped up its semifinal series against Fort Worth on April 20 and don’t start the finals until Tuesday at Allen, a 10-day layoff. Wichita went a week between games after sweeping Arizona in the first round.
"These long gaps between playoff series, they’re not the ideal situation, obviously," Thunder coach Kevin McClelland said. "It is what it is — we’ve just got to fill in the gaps there until we’re ready to drop the puck."
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Sweeping two playoff series to earn a much-needed break after the grind of 74 games seems like the perfect scenario, but a case could be made for something different.
Longer series would shorten layoffs between games and presumably keep the Thunder sharper than practices McClelland says operate at 80 percent.
Then again, Wichita showed no rust after waiting a week before the semifinals against Fort Worth, during which the Thunder outscored the Brahmas 14-5. Wichita won two games in Fort Worth, where the Brahmas were 20-6-7 during the regular season.
"This couldn’t have been avoided — even if we went to seven (against Fort Worth), we still wouldn’t be playing until Tuesday," Wichita defenseman Kevin Young said. "We’ve been playing great, and the breaks that we have had, we haven’t really lost a step going into the next thing.
"It’s at a point now where I don’t think being ready for a game is even a question. You’re playing in the finals, you’re playing for a championship. It doesn’t matter how long you take off or how short of a bounceback time you have, you’re just ready to play."
The extended time off isn’t dampening the Thunder’s spirit, however. The team is just as enthusiastic now as it would be coming off two uplifting Game 7 wins.
The Thunder isn’t losing its emotional edge, either, because the first two rounds were more business-like as the team easily achieved its first goal of reaching the finals.
The goal that remains is much more difficult, as evidenced by the beating Wichita took in the finals last year, won in five games by Fort Wayne.
Recent history also hasn’t been kind to Wichita, which hasn’t won the CHL championship since 1995. That isn’t stopping the Thunder from carrying on the hockey tradition of no shaving during the playoffs.
"There’s definitely a championship vibe going around," Young said. "It’s tough not to see it, too, with all the beards.… I think what I noticed is it’s been there right from the beginning of the playoffs. This team has sort of been built to make the finals and win the league. That’s the expectation, and no one is going to be happy with second place."
If there is a concern about the long break, it’s in the team Wichita is facing. The Thunder has proven to be on the same level as Allen, but the Americans are markedly better than Arizona and Fort Worth, the Thunder’s first two postseason opponents.
Adjusting to a different level of competition might be more difficult for the Thunder than for Allen, which had a more difficult semifinal series, beating Missouri in seven games.
"We’re aware of what’s coming at us, that’s for sure," McClelland said. "Allen is a heck of a hockey team. With those two sweeps — a bounce here or a bounce there, they could have been very long series. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, you’ve got to be prepared and know there’s all good teams in this league."