The Wichita Thunder knew coming into Friday night’s game that all they needed was a single point and they were in the post-season. It looked bad when they fell behind 3-0 to the Colorado Eagles, but an impressive second period comeback tied the score, before the Eagles would pull away in the third, winning 7-4. The Thunder would still wind up clinching a playoff berth, despite the loss.
The Colorado Eagles had a golden opportunity to take the lead at about nine minutes into the contest. The puck came to Joey Ratelle, who was stationed right in front of the net. He fired a point blank shot that Shane Starrett made a great save on.
However, the Eagles would take the lead at 10:12 of the first. Colorado used an aggressive forecheck, keeping the puck in the Thunder end. The puck came to Matt Grabowsky, who was right in front of the net. He alertly found Collin Bowman who was to the left of Starrett. The pass came right to Bowman, who slid it between the legs of the Thunder goalie for his 11th goal of the year.
The Eagles extended the lead to two with 1:31 left in the first. With both teams making a line change, Jake Marto gained control of the puck in the neutral zone. Teigan Zahn was standing right at the boards near the Wichita blue line and began banging his stick on the ice, looking for the quick pass. He entered the Thunder end and fired a slap shot that went up and over Starrett’s shoulder and into the net for his third goal of the season and first since November 27.
The Eagles extended their lead to three less than two minutes into the second, thanks to a power-play goal. Just 14 seconds after Etienne Boutet went to the penalty box, Colorado entered the Thunder end with a big rush. Ryan Olsen battled his way through the defender and was able to push the bouncing puck through the legs of the Wichita goaltender for his 25th goal of the year.
The Eagles did not have much time to celebrate as Mark MacMillan made this a two goal game again about a minute later. With Wichita putting on the pressure in the Colorado end, Dyson Stevenson knocked the puck from behind the net and out toward the faceoff circle. Jeremy Beaudry moved in from the blue line, then passed it to MacMillan who was standing in the slot. He blasted the one-time in for his 21st goal of the year to make it 3-1.
At 6:52 of the second, a great play on both ends moved the Wichita Thunder just a goal behind. MacMillan stole the puck at the Thunder blue line, the made an incredible pass that split between two defenders and onto the stick of Ryan Van Stralen, sending him down the slot on a breakaway. He beat Lukas Hafner with a wrist shot for his seventh goal in 15 games with the Thunder.
Moments later, Wichita would be on a power-play and should have tied the score, had it not been for two unbelievable saves by Hafner. One came with the goalie down on his butt, but he was able to reach up and make an amazing save, forcing a stoppage.
However, about 30 seconds after the man-advantage ended, the Wichita Thunder would tie the score. At 9:25, Guillaume Lepine fired a shot from the boards that the Eagles goalie saved, but Ralph Cuddemi swept in, putting the puck between the legs of the netminder for his team leading 32nd goal of the year. That tied the score at three.
With 9:14 left in the game, Colorado would retake the lead. Brady Shaw moved into the high slot and fired the puck which Starrett saved, but the puck deflected off a Wichita defenseman and into the net for his 13th goal of the year.
The lead did not last long as 22 seconds later the Thunder got the goal right back. A bad turnover by the Eagles gave the puck to Cuddemi and he put it past the Colorado goalie for his second of the game.
At 12:38, the Colorado Eagles retook the lead. J.C. Beaudin passed the puck to Jake Marto as he entered across the Thunder blue line and the defenseman blasted a shot between the arm and side of the Wichita goalie for his ninth goal of the year. That made it 5-4.
With 6:41 left in the game, the Eagles lead was two. The shot by Michael Joly was saved but the rebound came right to Bowman. He noticed Olsen alone at the other side of the net, and made a perfect pass that Olsen tipped in for his second goal of the game.
Bowman added an empty-net goal with 27 seconds left to seal the victory. He lifted a backhand out of his own end that barely trickled across the goal line for his 20th goal of the season. That gave the final score of 7-4.
Despite the loss, the Wichita Thunder earned their first playoff berth in five years when the Tulsa Oilers fell in a shootout. This will also be the first time that Wichita has made the playoffs since joining the ECHL. The Allen Americans won in overtime, moving them two points ahead of Wichita for third place in the Mountain Division. The Eagles and Thunder will finish the regular season tomorrow evening.
By Robert Pannier