By their own admission, the Wichita Thunder should have lost to the Tulsa Oilers on Friday night at Intrust Bank Arena.
The Thunder were nearly doubled in shots on goal and spent most of the game in its own defensive zone. Yet, Wichita once again managed to prevail, a 3-1 victory with goalkeeper Mitch Gillam recording 36 saves to claim his fifth straight win and Chris Crane tacking on two more goals to his team-high 14 points.
While the Thunder aren’t producing head-turning statistics under first-year coach Bruce Ramsay, they are producing wins. Friday’s victory marked the fifth in six games at Intrust Bank Arena to open the season, as the Thunder (6-2-3-0) have amassed 15 points through 11 games and sit in fourth place in the ECHL’s Western Conference.
“We have a coach that’s won at the highest level and we have veterans in here who have won as well,” Crane said. “I think that experience is trickling down to the young guys. We’re doing the little things right and we’re getting better day by day. And it doesn’t hurt that Gilly, in my opinion, has stole a couple of games for us.”
Gillam, an ECHL all-star last season, was Wichita’s prized offseason signing and he’s lived up to his billing. Nine of the 18 skaters on the Thunder’s roster are rookies, which has made for one of the ECHL’s most inexperienced teams.
In nine starts, Gillam has faced 50 more shots than any other goalkeeper in the ECHL. Friday night was much of the same, as Gillam had to come up with multiple saves on breakaway attempts by Tulsa.
“He faced a lot of rubber and sucked it all in,” Ramsay said. “I thought he did a great job controlling his rebounds and then he was there for some huge saves. He’s been there all year for us. We spent too much time in our defensive zone, but we’re a gritty team that is young and we’re going to make young, rookie mistakes. To be able to still get two points against a team that was in the semifinals last year shows you the character that this team has.”
Despite earning points in nine of 11 games, opponents are putting an average of nine more shots on goal per game than the Thunder. Even in Wichita’s six victories, it is being out-shot by more than eight shots on goal per game.
That has put an extraordinary amount of pressure on Gillam. So even after Friday, when Tulsa put 17 more shots on frame, the 26-year-old Gillam said he doesn’t view the increased workload as pressure.
“I wouldn’t call it pressure at all, I would call it a lot of fun,” Gillam said. “That’s why I’m a goalie. You stand back there and make the saves when you need to. The more shots you get, the more you’re into the game I feel. I didn’t think the chances they had were anything too crazy. I felt like our guys did a good job of letting me see the puck.”
With Gillam keeping Wichita in games, the Thunder are carving out a reputation as one of the most opportunistic teams in the ECHL. The Thunder are finishing 11.3% of their chances, one of the highest marks in the conference.
Tulsa had dominated the quality of play through the first 50 minutes of Friday’s game, but never had a lead to show for it because of Gillam’s play.
The Thunder didn’t have many chances, but they converted the first opportunity they saw in the third period. A Tulsa giveaway put the puck on Jack Comb’s stick with a 2-on-1 break and he threaded a pass to Crane in front of net and the seven-year veteran buried a wrist shot for his 100th career goal.
Crane’s nine goals are the second-most in the ECHL this season, while he ranks fifth in the conference in points with 14.
“All we needed was one chance and we know if Combs gets a chance, he’s going to make a play,” said Crane, who also scored an empty-net goal to secure the win. “I was lucky enough to get it in front and put it home. I knew I had 99, so that makes it special and for it to be a game-winner makes it even cooler.”
While Wichita’s current style of play may not translate to consistent points throughout an entire season, Ramsay is confident the play will only improve as the Thunder’s young players become acquainted with professional hockey.
The fact that the Thunder have already picked up as many points as they have is only a bonus.
“If you would have told me before we started that we’d be 6-2-3 and we got points in nine of 11 games, I probably would say that I would take that and be happy,” Ramsay said.
“We’re still finding our way, but we’re going to improve exponentially throughout the season. It’s a daily process and we talk about that process all the time. We want to out-work the other team and be that team that’s hard to play against because we’re always taking away your time and space and always in your face, causing turnovers and wrecking havoc. We maybe don’t have the talent that some of the other teams have, but we can make up for that with our effort.”