For the first time in five hockey seasons, the Thunder is in late-season playoff position.
With 18 games to go, Wichita is 29-20-4-1, fifth in the ECHL’s Western Conference with breathing room to remain in the top eight that qualify for the playoffs.
The closest the Thunder has been to the playoffs since advancing to back-to-back Central Hockey League Finals in 2012 and 2013 was the following season, when Wichita finished ninth in the 10-team CHL.
The Thunder has owned the ECHL’s worst record in each of the last two seasons. They all but eliminated that possibility with 16 wins in the first 20 games this season.
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The season hasn’t remained as smooth since, but the Thunder’s recent four-game winning streak helped it climb the standings.
“We’ve had to battle a lot of injuries,” Thunder coach Malcolm Cameron said. “When you do that, you’re just trying to pick up players here and there. They’re in here for a short time but not a long time, so you just want to scratch and claw through that.”
Last season, Wichita started 7-3 with a talented team that seemed likely to end the playoff drought. But most of the Thunder’s stalwarts were promoted to Binghamton of the American Hockey League in the Ottawa Senators chain, never to return.
Wichita, which plays Friday and Saturday at Utah, has faced some of the same challenges this season, but not as dramatically. Many of the players who have departed – either because of injury or promotion – have returned and allowed the Thunder to build a strong nucleus.
This year’s leading scorer, Mark MacMillan, is one point away from matching the Thunder’s leader from last season. Wichita already has nine active players with 24 points, two more than reached that total in 2016-17.
“For us, it’s been a quick turnaround with some of these injured guys,” Cameron said. “Having the availability of getting guys back quick has really helped.”
Wichita’s resiliency has been unlike that of recent years, when one losing stretch could derail the entire season. After dropping to 18-12 on Dec. 29, the Thunder won its next three games.
The Thunder’s recent four-game winning streak happened — during a stretch of 10 games in 15 days — after it fell to 25-23 and to the fringes of the playoff chase.
“It’s a good group,” Cameron said. “I don’t know if people know how hard it is to play 10 games in 15 days.… The character of this group is awesome. Just awesome.”
A look at recent Thunder seasons:
Record: 21-44-6-1, last in Western Conference
What went wrong: In its first season as an affiliate to an NHL team, the Thunder lost several players to the Triple-A American Hockey League early in the season and never recovered.
Key stretch: After winning seven of its first 10 games, Wichita won five of its next 36.
Record: 18-41-7-6, last in Western Conference
What went wrong: The Thunder appeared unmotivated during Kevin McClelland’s final season as coach, last owning a winning record at 4-3.
Key stretch: Wichita won twice in 17 games between Oct. 31 and Dec. 12
Record: 32-31-2-7, 10th in conference
What went wrong: Though it owned a winning points percentage, Wichita was done in by seven post-regulation defeats. A roster largely constructed for the Central Hockey League never owned a winning overall record – overtime losses included.
Key stretch: The Thunder got to within three wins of .500 multiple times but lost nine of 12 games between March 6-29.
Record: 27-30-9, ninth in Central Hockey League
What went wrong: Wichita lost 10 of its first 11 games, including four in overtime or shootouts.
Key stretch: Wichita’s best record was 19-23 (including overtime defeats), but the Thunder won eight times in the final 24 games.