The reasons for the Thunder’s early-season difficulties probably go beyond its ability, as forward Matt Robinson says, to “figure it out.” But there also might not be any reason for the players to make it more complex than that.
Wichita’s 3-2 loss to Denver Sunday at Intrust Bank Arena was its fourth straight defeat by one goal and sixth such loss this season. Everything working against the Thunder seems to happen most often in the final period, like on Sunday when Denver scored two goals in under 90 seconds.
Then there are the factors for Robinson’s simplification of the struggles. Wichita has led or been tied (after 0-0) in every game this season, holding an advantage in five of its defeats leading to a 1-4-3 record.
The Thunder is missing its captain, Andrew Martens, along with three other crucial components — Jesse Dudas, Matt Summers and Ian Lowe — who have joined him on the injured list. Having those four in the lineup would push out some of the weaker links.
For now, though, the narrow losses are adding up for the Thunder emotionally after a weekend that saw Wichita lose three games in three days since the beginning of last season, when the Thunder dropped three consecutive road games.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” said Robinson, who gave Wichita a 2-1 lead with a second-period goal. “I think it would be better if we were just getting blown out most of the time. It’s starting to get a little frustrating and it’s starting to get a little old, when we’re going into the third period up by a goal or even more than that.
“We’re giving up leads like that, and it can’t happen. We’ve got to be ready to go, we’ve got to be ready to play a full 60. Definitely something is going to have to change soon or (coach Kevin McClelland) will definitely change something for us.”
McClelland takes a more analytical approach since he sees the Thunder’s failures play out from his vantage point behind the bench. He notices when players get out of position or when defensemen allow opposing forwards to get to the net unimpeded.
Those kind of breakdowns led to Denver scoring the tying goal, then taking the lead before the Thunder could re-collect itself. McClelland has afforded opportunities to players who might not be with the team if not for the glut of injuries, but he has begun to bemoan the shortage of reliability.
“They’ve got to stop happening,” McClelland said of the breakdowns. “When we get some of the better guys back in the lineup, we can get some of the guys out of the lineup who have been costing us. This is my trainer’s time to shine now, get some guys back.”
The genesis of the Thunder’s losing streak came in games at Denver that they lost 6-4 and 6-5 last weekend. Wichita led 4-3 early in the third of the first game before Denver sewed up a victory with three goals in about 10 minutes. The next night, Wichita carried a 4-1 lead and had to score late to send it to overtime after Denver notched four unanswered goals before winning after regulation.
Those two scoring surges by the Cutthroats are tough to Wichita to match due to the injuries, so Sunday the Thunder tried to make the game more physical. Garrett Gruenke and Daniel Barnes dropped the gloves four seconds in and Gruenke, one of the Central Hockey League’s most prolific fighters during his six-year career, got the best of his adversary.
Even though Denver scored first, on a power play, the Cutthroats were mostly taken out of any opportunity to build momentum during the first two periods. Though Denver was a willing participant, mostly, in a slower-paced game, the Thunder created that pace with the early fight.
“That was good on (Gruenke) to step up there and give us the energy we need,” Robinson said. “…We have our momentum, it’s almost just like we shoot ourselves in the foot with our mistakes, or turnovers, or maybe some weak goals. We’ve got to turn it around.”
Wichita is digging a hole, 10 points out of first place in a league that includes six teams with one or fewer losses.
“We’ve just got to keep our heads up,” Robinson said. “We’ve got to figure it out. We’ve got to figure it out quick or we’re in trouble.”
Scoring—Denver, Bembridge PP (Kaunitso, Schwab), 0:32; 2. Wichita, Flath PP (Beauregard, M. Wilson), 11:28. Penalties—Wichita, Gruenke (fighting major), 0:04; Denver, Barnes (fighting major), 0:04; Wichita, Hand (roughing), 0:17; Denver, Schwab (tripping), 11:14.
Scoring—3. Wichita, Robinson (McParland, Sagert), 18:06. Penalties—Wichita, Madden (holding stick), 9:54.
Scoring—4. Denver, Arseneau (Moffie, Patterson), 10:09; 5. Denver, Schwab (Bembridge, Gale), 11:22. Penalties—Denver, Zimmerman (boarding), 2:49.
Power play—Denver 1-2, Wichita 1-2. Shots—Denver 6-7-9—22, Wichita 11-5-12—28. Saves—Denver, Patterson 26-28; Wichita, Jung 19-22.