The Thunder will spend the next two months fighting for a playoff spot, but there is a more immediate hockey matter on the mind of Wichita forward Tomas Klempa.
A native of Slovakia, Klempa is eagerly awaiting his native country’s Olympic game against the United States, which will kick off Group A competition for both teams on Wednesday.
Klempa has played hockey in the United States for the last 11 years and jokes that he only returns to Slovakia “for vacation,” but his allegiances are with a different red, white and blue, since those are the colors on the flag of his homeland.
“Of course,” Klempa said when asked if he’d be pulling for the Slovaks. “It’ll be exciting to see, it’s going to be great hockey. There are a lot of good teams and players.”
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Klempa can afford to let his mind drift occasionally because he and the Thunder appear to be in their most stable condition of an often-difficult season.
Wichita has won seven of its last nine games, is mostly healthy after a slew of early-season injuries, and is slowly creeping toward the middle of the Central Hockey League standings, right behind fourth-place Denver.
A major reason for the recent surge has been Klempa, a traditionally undersized forward at 5-foot-8, 180 pounds. He turns his size into an asset by standing up to physical play from opponents, and using speed and shiftiness to get behind the defense for scoring opportunities.
Klempa is a momentum-driven player currently on his second four-game scoring streak in less than a month while piling up points efficiently. He has seven points over the last four games on 11 shots, converting on a high percentage of his own attempts while also recognizing the abilities of linemates RG Flath and Matt Summers, who have also helped key the Thunder’s hot stretch.
“If the team is doing well, guys are doing well, as well as myself,” said the 29-year-old Klempa. “In playing with Summers and Flath, we’re understanding each other on the ice, off the ice, it’s been good. …Summers, myself and Flath, we clicked.”
The value Klempa has supplied the Thunder came after two major adjustment periods that Klempa ultimately made appear minor. Klempa was released by Tulsa after five games and joined Wichita after the season, going scoreless in his first four games.
After finally gaining some comfort, Klempa was injured in early December, a foreign concept for him after he missed two total games in the previous three seasons. Klempa proved his worth immediately upon his return on Jan. 3, scoring two goals against Arizona and starting a string of 13 points in 12 games.
“It’s frustrating,” said Klempa, in his second stint with the Thunder after 26 games in 2009-10. “It’s tough to miss that many games after missing two in three years. But it’s part of the game and I just fought through it. I just went out there and tried to play my game, do what I always did, and see what happened.”
Klempa perhaps thrived because he’s been through more stark adjustment periods. After moving from Slovakia, one of Klempa’s first hockey experiences was playing collegiately at Nebraska-Omaha, a distinct difference from his central European roots.
Klempa survived to become a CHL marksman, scoring more than 50 points in each of the last three seasons. Now he’s trying to lead a successful final two months, even though he’s almost as interested in what happens in a week in Sochi.
“I think we’ve been playing with confidence, which helps,” Klempa said. “These last couple months are going to be really good for us.”