After coach Kevin McClelland lamented the Thunder’s lack of scorers after Friday’s loss to Quad City, Wichita responded as if that signaled an open audition.
Five relatively unlikely scorers netted goals for the Thunder on Saturday in a 5-0 win over Rapid City at Intrust Bank Arena. Wichita mustered a relative offensive barrage after scoring 10 goals over its previous five games, and the Thunder scored its most in a victory at home since Nov. 22, a span of 11 games.
Defensemen Mike Wilson and Eric Meland scored power-play goals in the first period, and third-line forwards Todd Hosmer and Erick Lizon scored in the second before Kyle Gibbons joined the onslaught in the third.
Goaltender Tim Boron delivered Wichita’s fourth shutout and third in the last six home games.
“Everyone contributed tonight and that’s what we’ve got to be, that kind of team,” McClelland said. “We activated the defense a little more in the offensive zone, changed some things up on the forecheck. It looked like it worked pretty well, but let’s not let one game get us all excited and get ahead of ourselves.”
The Thunder has been plagued recently by slow starts, often finding itself trailing after the first period with a wide discrepancy in shots on goal.
Rapid City appeared ready to exploit that weakness Saturday, slowing down the game by deliberately setting up its offense behind its own goal.
Two factors worked to allow the Thunder to change the tempo – the first was a Hosmer fight with Justin Faryna that energized the crowd of 5,834 but also represented a dedication by the Thunder to play a more physical game, or at least to bring Rapid City out of its comfort zone.
The Rush committed five penalties in the first period, leading to four Thunder power plays. Those also changed the pace because they enabled Wichita to gain a shot advantage while building offensive momentum earlier than usual.
The Thunder ended with a 44-25 edge in shots and kept Rapid City’s power play unit off the board in five tries.
“You look at the power play and I get frustrated with it sometimes, too,” McClelland said of a unit ranked ninth in the 28-team ECHL. “But it’s in the upper echelon of the league. We got some goals tonight that got us ahead, which is huge. A lot of times we’re always killing the first penalties of the hockey games, which is what is getting us behind the 8-ball.”
Wilson and Meland cashed in on Wichita’s faster start with rare goals. Wilson’s was his second in 24 games, though he has eight assists, and Meland scored his first in 13 games.
The Thunder may rely more upon scoring defensemen such as Wilson and Meland throughout the season as Wichita looks for scoring depth and dependability beyond top forwards Ian Lowe, Danick Gauthier, Kenton Miller and RG Flath.
The power play presents a better opportunity for those players to become involved because defensemen frequently handle the puck on special teams.
“We switched some things up tonight and got (defensemen) more active in the offensive zone as part of our forecheck, without compensating our defensive side of things,” McClelland said. “We made some adjustments and it worked well. Wilson’s playing good hockey right now. He’s a guy who’s going to score a lot of points when he’s playing with confidence.”
After Wilson and Meland scored, Wichita began looking for its first even-strength goal in two games, and the Thunder got it when Hosmer scored to make it 3-0 late in the second. With less than a minute to go in the third, Lizon batted a puck out of the air into the net.
Gibbons got his second goal in six games, scoring with about five minutes to go.
Scoring—1. Wichita, Wilson PP (Duval, Lowe), 15:03; 2. Wichita, Meland PP (Kashirsky, Gauthier), 17:10. Penalties—Rapid City, Soudek (tripping), 5:57; Rapid City, Oslanski (hooking), 10:52; Rapid City, Faryna (fighting major), 13:27; Wichita, Hosmer (fighting major), 13:27; Rapid City, Clarke (cross checking), 14:36; Rapid City, Barczuk (slashing), 15:12.
Scoring—3. Wichita, Hosmer (Gibbons, Meland); 4. Wichita, Lizon (Hosmer, Walker), 19:05. Penalties—Wichita, Kashirsky (high sticking), 1:35; Rapid City, Oslanski (tripping), 6:40; Rapid City, Schultz (interference), 16:11; Wichita, Miller (interference), 19:30.
Scoring—5. Wichita, Gibbons (Meland, Gauthier), 14:40. Penalties—Wichita, Boron (tripping), 0:48; Rapid City, Barczuk (high sticking double minor), 4:02; Wichita, Walker (cross checking), 8:31; Wichita, Hosmer (elbowing), 11:48; Rapid City, Law (tripping), 15:52; Wichita, Peckham (misconduct, unsportsmanlike conduct 10 min.), 17:18.
Power play—Rapid City 0-5, Wichita 2-9. Shots—Rapid City 10-9-6—25, Wichita 13-12-19—44. Saves—Rapid City, Battochio 39-44; Wichita, Boron. 25-25.