Coming out of the All-Star break, both the Wichita Thunder and Colorado Eagles were looking to get the second half of the season off to a fast start. Colorado entered the contest 13 points ahead in the standings, but it was the Thunder who looked like the first place team, getting two goals from Ralph Cuddemi on their way to a 3-1 victory. Over 7,000 filled INTRUST Bank Arena to see All-Star Shane Starrett put up a brilliant performance for Wichita, making 32 saves for his 13th win of the season.
The Wichita Wingnuts came out fired up on #ILOVEWICHITA night, and it would pay off as they would take the lead at the 7:35 mark of the first. Chad Butcher carried the puck into the Colorado end. As he crossed the blueline, he passed the puck back to Shaquille Merasty who fired a great wrist shot that beat Joe Cannata over his glove hand to make it 1-0 Wichita. That was the first professional goal for Merasty.
With five minutes left in the first, Wichita had a golden opportunity to extend their lead. Lane Bauer made a great steal inside the Eagles end as the Eagles looked like were going to breakout with momentum. Bauer passed down low to Ralph Cuddemi who was alone in front, but Cannata made a great save to keep it a one goal game.
About three and a half minutes into the second, Cuddemi had two golden opportunities for the Thunder. The first came when Mark MacMillan fired a great pass as he was moving down the slot. The forward tipped it on net, but Cannata made a nice save. A few seconds later, a shot went wide of the Colorado net, but the Thunder forward corralled it and put two shots on net at the Eagles netminder, who was able to smother the second and force a faceoff.
With about nine minutes left in the second, Shane Starrett would make a huge save in net for the Thunder. Colorado was on a 5-on-3 power-play when a pass was sent across the crease to a wide-open Drayson Bowman. Bowman fired a quick shot on goal, but Starrett was able to spread his legs apart like Gumby, making a huge save with his foot to keep the puck out and maintain the one goal lead.
With a little less than six minutes left in the period, the Colorado Eagles tied the score. Gabriel Verpaelst fired a shot from the point that Starrett made a nice kick save on, but the puck came right to Jake Marchment, who fired the puck past the Thunder goalie for his sixth goal of the year.
At the 16:30 point, it looked like Marchment was going to have a breakaway opportunity. An outlet pass sent the Eagles foward down center ice all alone, but Jeremy Beaudry hustled to chase after him and was able to knock the puck away with his stick just as Marchment entered the Thunder zone to end the threat.
That proved to be huge as the Thunder would take the lead with just 12 seconds left in the second period. Cuddemi gained control of the puck along the right-side boards in the Colorado end and put on a burst of speed. He swooped around the net, quickly moving out to the side, putting the wraparound in for his 14th goal of the season, making it 2-1 Wichita.
At the 4:54 mark of the second, Cuddemi made it a two goal advantage for the Wichita Thunder. A great outlet pass by Bauer sent Cuddemi in on net on a breakaway. He looked to go five-hole, and it looked like Cannata made the save, but the puck slid through his pads and just across the goal line for his second score of the game.
The Eagles pulled their goalie with four minutes left in the game, and had several great opportunities, but Starrett stoned them every time.
Ralph Cuddemi was unstoppable on the night, scoring 2 goals for Wichita and Lane Bauer added 2 assists. Shane Starrett made 31 saves. Joe Cannata played well for Colorado, making 32 saves.
The Wichita Thunder are off until Friday, when they will play the first of two games in Allen against the Americans. Opening faceoff is 7:05.
By Robert Pannier