Whenever an athlete says he has no preference regarding which opponent his team faces in an important playoff series, he’s almost always being less than honest. The truth comes out when top teams meet in the postseason, and a player says it was the series he wanted all along.
That would have seemed to be the case for the Thunder and Allen, the teams that tussled for the top spot in the Central Hockey League throughout the regular season. It would stand to reason that Wichita was targeting the Americans, who won the league, but that’s not the case.
After losing in a five-game final series to Fort Wayne last year, the Thunder isn’t focused on beating any particular opponent, just winning no matter who the opponent. So far, that goal has been reached, as Wichita has swept its first two series, against Arizona and Fort Worth and open CHL finals play against Allen on Tuesday in Allen, Texas.
"To be honest, I don’t think we were really too concerned about who we ended up playing," Thunder goalie Torrie Jung said. "We’ve obviously had success against (potential finals opponents Missouri and Allen) during the regular season, but ultimately it’s going to come down to how we play. We weren’t really looking at a favorite team we wanted to play."
The series against Allen isn’t likely to be as easy as those against Arizona and Fort Worth. The Americans rode an early-season hot streak — 23 wins in their first 30 games fueled by players forced to play down a level or two due to the NHL lockout — to the top seed in the postseason.
When those players returned to their original destinations, Wichita and Fort Worth threatened to take over first place. The Thunder led the league briefly during the second half but couldn’t hold on, finishing one point behind Allen thanks to one more regulation loss.
The teams each had 39 wins; the Americans had 20 on the road while Wichita’s 25-6-2 record at home was the league’s best.
Wichita players might not explicitly say that a sweep is unlikely or even virtually impossible, but they’re preparing themselves for a long series. Without home-ice advantage, the Thunder will have to win at least one game on the road to win the championship.
"I think we were really fortunate to sweep those other series," Wichita defenseman Travis Wight said. "At the same time, we weren’t expecting that, either. When we play Allen, we don’t expect that. Our record was pretty close in the regular season, so it’s one of those that we know is going to be a battle but that we know we’re prepared for."
The similarities between Allen and the Thunder don’t stop at their nearly identical records. Those records were achieved by the same means — depth and balance offensively, a versatile group of defenders who can score goals and prevent them, and standout goalie play.
Allen’s Aaron Dell played nothing like a rookie, leading the CHL in goals-against average and getting his name on the MVP ballot. Jung led the league in wins and has gotten better during the playoffs, where he has allowed 12 goals and made 191 saves in eight games.
The goalie matchup will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the series, but as Jung points out, it’s not the only matchup.
"Anytime you’re in the finals, everything is magnified a little bit," Jung said. "We’re not going to look to get anything easy. I know I’m going to play as hard as I can, and I’m sure (Dell) is too, but at the same time it’s not a one-man game out there. There’s going to be a lot of different factors coming from a lot of different players."
One of those factors might be how momentum comes into play, even if its a lack of it. Both teams have reasons to come into the finals on an emotional high — Wichita because of its eight-game winning streak and Allen because it won Game 7 in its previous series against Missouri.
But the effects of those victories may have worn off by now. Wichita hasn’t played in 10 days and Allen has been off for a week. The breaks ensure the teams will enter the series rested and not dragging from playing nearly 80 games to this point, but it could also keep them on equal footing and eliminate any emotional advantage.
"(The Game 7 win) is a huge positive for them, but ours is as well," Wight said. "We did ourselves some favors by not letting the series go too long so we got some rest there, got some bumps and bruises cleared up. We’d like to think we’re going to go in with some momentum, but at the same time they’re thinking the exact same thing."