The Thunder’s victory over Allen in Game 1 of the Central Hockey League finals last week, certainly important at the time, has suddenly become even more crucial.
The damage incurred to Wichita’s collective psyche after losing Game 4 in Wichita, tying the series 2-2, was somewhat offset by the precedent the Thunder set by winning the opener on the road.
The finals has been reduced to a best-of-three, with two games to be played in Allen including the if-necessary Game 7. Wichita is confident it can win on the road after having done it once already, and the Americans have been far from unbeatable at the Allen Event Center during the postseason.
Allen’s Game 1 loss was its fourth home defeat of the postseason, half the number it lost during the 66-game regular season.
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"We kind of let one slip away, we had a chance to take a big 3-1 series lead here," Thunder forward Matt Robinson said after Sunday’s Game 4. "Now it’s back to square one again. We can’t really get our heads down, it’s a big series and it’s 2-2. We know we can win in their barn, and I think we can do it."
Wichita and Allen were clearly the two best teams during the regular season and in the playoffs, but this series has afforded neither a consistent chance to put its best foot forward.
Since the teams are so familiar, so similar and suffering from the same mental and physical toll that 80 games can take on even the most well-conditioned teams, much of the series has come down to which team can best capitalize on mistakes and take advantage of scoring opportunities.
Even though the Thunder has outshot Allen in every game and often been the tone-setter in the physical side of the game, Wichita hasn’t been without mistakes. In two games, Allen has pounced on them, and in the other two the Thunder has seized upon the Americans’ miscues.
Sunday was Wichita’s poorest-executed game. Though the shots were lopsided in the Thunder’s favor, reaching 22-6 at one point during the second period, Wichita turnovers helped to a tying goal by the Americans in the second period and a shift in momentum.
“It’s a grind right now,” Wichita forward RG Flath said. “...We have to be mentally sharp, and I don’t think we were in Game 2 and 4. Hopefully we learn from our mistakes and pick up the little things.”
It’s becoming difficult for both teams to keep from looking ahead. If Allen wins Game 5, it has two chances to close out the series, including a potential Game 7 at home. If Wichita wins, the Thunder can focus on the possibility of winning the series at home in Friday’s sixth game.
Wichita’s confidence in the potential to win another game at home is a point of caution for the Americans. Allen’s inconsistency — the Americans have lost four of their last seven games — would also be a cause for concern, except Allen has learned to live with its ups and downs because the “downs” are often followed by a much-improved performance.
The Americans won Sunday without Trevor Ludwig and Darryl Bootland, two of the team’s emotional leaders and best scorers.
"There has been games where we haven’t been ready to play, and that’s obviously not something we want to deal with," Allen captain Jason Deitsch said. "We have to forget about it and come back and play. We felt like we had a good effort (Saturday) night, and we battled back and had a better effort (Sunday).
"It’s not something we want to be OK with. We don’t want to be OK with having those off nights in the playoffs. We knew this was going to be a long series. They’ve got a very good team, and it’s going to be a battle."