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WICHITA, Kan. – The Colorado Eagles kick off their final Kelly Cup Playoff run in Wichita, where they will take on a familiar foe, the Wichita Thunder. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, you have to go back to the Central Hockey League days. In that series, the 2005 CHL Semifinals, the Eagles defeated the Thunder in six games and moved on to play the Laredo Bucks in the CHL Finals (the Eagles won that series, 4-2, claiming their first CHL title.)

The Thunder join the 16-team Kelly Cup Playoff field for the first time in franchise history and have made the playoffs for the first time since 2013. They are led by head coach Malcolm Cameron, who has worked diligently in his two years in the Air Capital to rebuild a program that was extremely dilapidated.

Colorado, meanwhile, is looking to repeat as Kelly Cup Champions in their final season in the ECHL. The Eagles are loaded up front and on the blueline, with players like Michael JolyRyan OlsenCliff WatsonMatt Register and Jake Marto.

Final Regular Season Records:

Colorado Eagles: 48-18-4-2, 102 points (Mountain Division champs, 2nd in Western Conf.)
Wichita Thunder: 34-30-6-2, 76 points (4th in Mountain Division, 8th in Western Conf.)

Series Schedule (home team in CAPS and all times local):

Game 1 – Sunday, April 15 – Colorado @ WICHITA 4:05 pm CT
Game 2 – Monday, April 16 – Colorado @ WICHITA 7:05 pm CT
Game 3 – Wednesday, April 18 – Wichita @ COLORADO 7:05 pm MT
Game 4 – Friday, April 20 – Wichita @ COLORADO 7:05 pm MT
*Game 5 – Saturday, April 21 – Wichita @ COLORADO 7:05 pm MT
*Game 6 – Monday, April 23 – Colorado @ WICHITA 7:05 pm CT
*Game 7 – Wednesday, April 25 – Wichita @ COLORADO 7:05 pm MT
* => If Necessary

Season Series Recap:

Colorado won the season series 5-1-0, but except for the final two games in which the Eagles outscored Wichita 12-5, the series was closer than the win-loss record indicated.

Thunder Captain Dyson Stevenson & Eagles defenseman Ben Storm fight in the opening moments of their game Saturday night. Photo: Ed Bailey/The Sin Bin

In the team’s first meeting on December 13, 2017, Wichita spotted Colorado the first three goals and fought back to even the game. With a little over four minutes left in regulation, Joey Ratelle capitalized on a turnover by Marc-Olivier Crevier-Morin to give the Eagles a 4-3 win.

The next three games would take place in Wichita, with the Thunder going 1-1-0-1 in those contests against the Eagles. On January 20, Ralph Cuddemi scored two goals and Lane Bauer posted two assists as the Thunder defeated the Eagles 3-1.

A month later, Wichita would blow a two-goal lead in the third period and lose at home to the Eagles, 5-3. The next night, a bad carom led to Olsen tying the game in the middle stages of the second period, before ultimately winning it in a shootout.

This last Friday night, Colorado jumped out to a 3-0 lead, before Wichita came back to tie the game, but Marto scored with 7:22 left in regulation to propel the Eagles to a 7-4 win. The next night, the Eagles again scored three unanswered goals and chased Thunder rookie netminder Dylan Wells, taking the final game of the regular season 5-1.

How Colorado Wins:

The Eagles seemed to do a good job of forcing the majority of Wichita’s chances to the outside during their most recent two-game set. When Wichita was able to get some sustained pressure, especially Friday night, it ended up with the Thunder getting on the scoreboard. If Aaron Schneekloth and Ryan Tobler can implement a defensive plan that continues to keep the majority of Wichita’s chances to the outside, Colorado should be set up for success in this series.

Last year, we thought the Eagles’ habit of going to the box would get them in trouble, but that wasn’t the case, as the Eagles played smarter as the rounds progressed. That said, the Eagles will have to play smart and limit their trips to the box if they want to have a shot at moving on.

How Wichita Wins:

It has been a tale of two Wichita Thunder teams since the puck dropped on the 2017-18 season. Early on, the Thunder were winning games in every facet possible; good defense, potent offense, and stellar goaltending. Since the calendar turned to 2018, though, the Thunder seemed to have limped to the finish line.

In 40 games to end the regular season, Wichita finished with a 14-20-4-2 mark. Going deeper in the numbers, Wichita was outscored by the opposition 145-111 (or an average of 2.78 goals for/gm to 3.63 goals against/gm) and allowed five or more goals 16 times in the 2018 portion of the schedule.

What should be a concern to Thunder fans, is the lack of production from the depth players in the lineup. Brayden Low has three points in 11 games in a Thunder uniform, while Kevin Dufour‘s scoring pace has slowed drastically, notching five points in the final 14 games of the regular season (March and April combined). Travis Ewanyk has just one goal since February 9 and five points overall during that stretch. The addition of Cam Reid, who has 18 points in 21 Kelly Cup Playoff games, should, hopefully, give some of these players a boost. Should the Thunder get Evan Polei back from Bakersfield, it will give the team an added rugged forward to match up against Colorado’s shifty forward corps.

For Wichita to win this series, they will need their ECHL All-Star netminder Shane Starrett to return to the form that earned him the honor earlier this season. He has shown flashes of it one night, only to be off the next.

They will also need their defense to play consistently like they did in their final home regular-season contest against Allen. When the Thunder defense plays safe and doesn’t try to do too much, the entire unit performs much better. If Wichita allows Colorado to establish their cycle-game and chases the puck, then the advantage lies squarely with the Eagles.

Finally, the special teams for Wichita have to play much better. The penalty kill and power play both occupy residencies in the bottom quarter of the league (22nd overall on the power-play, 23rd overall on the penalty kill) heading into the playoffs. With the assembled firepower Wichita has, the power-play ranking is a bit perplexing. Hopefully, for Thunder fans, the Eagles will wear out a path to the box and give the Thunder power-play plenty of opportunities to work.

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