WICHITA, Kan. – The phrase “control of their own destiny” means so much at this time of the year. 20 men have battled together for more than 65 games; fighting call-ups, short benches, traveling thousands of miles for the chance to own whether they will play in the Kelly Cup Playoffs starting next week.
For the Wichita Thunder, they surrendered “control of their own destiny” in a 3-2 loss to the Tulsa Oilers on Friday night in front of the largest crowd of the season — more than 13-thousand — at INTRUST Bank Arena.
“We knew how big the game was,” said Thunder team Captain Dyson Stevenson. “We made it seem like it was game 7 Kelly Cup.”
With the pressures of an untimely six-game winless streak and the playoff race mounting, the Thunder played the first 45 or so minutes of Friday night’s contest uncharacteristically tight; making simple mistakes, not connecting on passes, and trying to do too much. At several points, you could see the frustration on player’s faces and how they were conducting themselves on the ice and the bench.
Finally, though, after much imploring by head coach Malcolm Cameron to not worry about the score and push the play, Wichita finally broke through when Ralph Cuddemi scored on the power-play to make the deficit 3-1. Five-and-a-half minutes later, Travis Ewanyk scored for the first time since February 9 and cut the deficit down to one at 3-2. Wichita would continue to apply the pressure, but Jake Hildebrand would hold the down the fort, and Tulsa escaped with the victory.
With the loss, Wichita moved into fourth place in the Mountain Division, one point ahead of Tulsa for fifth and two points behind Allen for third. Wichita needs at least four of six points and at least two Tulsa losses in regulation to guarantee themselves their first trip to the Kelly Cup Playoffs in franchise history, and first appearance in a playoff of any kind since May 2013.
It seems like a bit of a tough ask for the Thunder squad to win all three of their final games, considering they haven’t won more than three games in a row since February 13-18 (four-game winning streak). Since then, Wichita has gone 4-9-2-2 in their last 17 games.
For Stevenson, the message to his team is evident heading into Tuesday night’s contest:
“We need to play a little safer against Allen because they create a lot of odd-man rushes,” Stevenson said. “We didn’t quite work as hard as we could until we knew we had to come out and win the next period by three or four goals. So, I told the guys that we have no choice now. It’s either go back home and work a full-time job or work your butt off for sixty minutes in the next three games and continue on making a paycheck here.”
With the championship pedigree in the room — Stevenson, Guillaume Lepine, Nolan Descoteaux, and Nick Riopel — there is still a belief this team can make the playoffs.
“Now we need to win, we have no choice, or we’re done,” Stevenson said. “We did all this work throughout the season, rode that tough bus, tough schedule, we didn’t do it for nothing. We’ve got three games to win. I believe in our team.”
Wichita plays their final home game of the season on Tuesday night when they host the Allen Americans. The Thunder will wrap-up the 2017-18 regular season on Friday and Saturday night in Colorado against the Eagles.