After four disappointing seasons of not making the playoffs, the Wichita Thunder finally broke the rut, advancing to the postseason in the ECHL for the first time. The 2017-18 season was clearly one to remember, as Head Coach Malcolm Cameron did an amazing job of building a team that recorded the most victories by a Thunder team in five years.
A Look Back at Last Year’s Playoffs
The Wichita Thunder made last year a season to remember by ending their playoff drought. They opened the playoffs against the Colorado Eagles, who had owned Wichita during the regular season, going 5-1-0-0 against the Thunder, and it looked like the Eagles would run away with this series when they jumped out to a 3-0 lead.
However, the three losses were a lot closer than the record would depict, as the Thunder had led in every game during the series, but were not able to close out those contests. That changed in Game 4, when the team’s captain, Dyson Stevenson, led an offensive onslaught as the Thunder pummeled Colorado, 6-0.
In Game 5, the Thunder looked like they were going to let another contest slip away. The Thunder clung to a one goal lead as the Eagles peppered Wichita netminder Shane Starrett for 20 shots in the third period, and it looked like they would be denied, but Drayson Bowman tied the score with just 1:17 left, sending it to overtime.
However, the extra frame did not last long, as Ryan Van Stralen picked off a pass and went in alone on goal, scoring just 21 seconds into overtime, forcing a Game 6.
The Thunder were looking to become the first ECHL team to fall behind 0-3 and yet force a seventh game, but that was not meant to be. Wichita rallied to tie the score at three in the third, but Joey Ratelle put Colorado back on top with 3:30 left in the game. They would add an empty net goal, knocking the Thunder from the playoffs.
Building Off Disappointment
The Wichita Thunder had reached the playoffs for the first time since joining the ECHL, and that generated a lot of excitement around the organization, but there was still a sense of disappointment. Coach Cameron explained this week that the team felt that they should have won that series.
“I know the guys who returned from last season want to take this a step further. They all feel, as do I, that we were really close to knocking off Colorado. We led every game of that series, we just couldn’t close some of those games out.”
The Thunder were close, and that inspired the Coach to try to do his best to keep the core of his team intact. In his third season with the team, only one player, defenseman Jeremy Beaudry, returns from his first campaign, but nine players return from last season’s squad, including leading scorer Ralph Cuddemi.
Cuddemi arrived from Fort Wayne after 10 games with the Komets, and he had his most successful campaign as a professional, scoring 31 goals and adding 27 assists in 59 games. For the entire season, the forward had 33 goals and 31 assists. He was tied for fourth in goals and 13th in total points.
Forward Ryan Van Stralen was a late season addition after graduating from Carleton University. He helped push the team into the playoffs, scoring 8 goals and adding 15 total points in 16 games. Greg Chase returns, who had 17 points in 17 games with Wichita. He spent most of the season in the American Hockey League.
Last year, Lane Bauer and Steven Iacobellis were rookies who made their mark. Bauer appeared in 63 games, scoring 9 goals and adding 28 assists. Iacobellis was playing well before a leg injury sidelined him for 55 games. He returned in time for the playoffs and looked sharp. A full off-season to rehab should make him even stronger.
On the blueline, Beaudry returns after recording 13 goals and 24 assists. Kevin Patterson and Marc-Olivier Crevier-Morin return as well. Crevier-Morin recorded 19 points while Patterson had seven in 19 games.
Leadership and Experience the Keys
There is a lot of experience and leadership on this year’s club, something the Coach made a priority in the off-season. Captain Dyson Stevenson returns after recording 30 points in 64 games last year. He was the heart and soul of the club and the team thrives off his energy.
Former Tampa Bay Lightning forward Pierre-Cedric Labrie joins the club as well, serving as player-assistant coach this season. He has over 600 games of AHL experience to go along with 46 games in the NHL and his leadership and size should be a welcome addition.
Defenseman Tyler Elbrecht will serve as the other assistant captain this year. Elbrechlt was a nemesis to the Thunder for Kansas City last year. This will be his sixth professional season.
In net, the Thunder received both their goaltenders from the Edmonton Oilers. Stuart Skinner was a third round pick in 2017, and has spent the last five seasons in the WHL. He won 30 games last year with six shutouts.
Dylan Wells returns to Wichita. He appeared in just one game last year after completing the OHL season. Wells was a fifth round pick of the Oilers in 2016.
A Team Ready for New Heights
The 2017-18 Wichita Wingnuts reached new heights, but that has only made the team hungrier.
“Now that we have had a little taste of that success, we want to take it a step further,” explained Coach Cameron. “I know our returning group is motivated. I know some of the experienced guys from other teams want to take it a step further, and I know some have some championship experience already.”
With the Colorado Eagles jumping to the AHL, this is a season where the Wichita Thunder have a real shot at going all the way, earning their first Kelly Cup title in the ECHL. No doubt the Thunder should be deep and talented this season, so ECHL teams should be wary – the Thunder are bringing the storm.
By Robert Pannier