With two weeks left in the ECHL’s regular season, the Wichita Thunder are in danger of missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season under head coach Kevin McClelland. Wichita made the playoffs in each of McClelland’s first three years with the team, including two berths in the President’s Cup Final (CHL).
But this is a different Thunder team from those McClelland has constructed in his first three years, that prided itself on a high-octane offense and a very physical game. This year’s team identity has been to get just enough offense to win, then rely on defense and goaltending to grind out the victory. Recently, however, that identity has become muddled.
The Thunder have a 3-6-0-1 record in their last 10 games. In that span, the team is allowing 3.5 goals per game, while scoring an average of 2.7 goals per game, and have been held to one goal or less four times. Players that were expected to add offensive depth to this Thunder squad, Nikita Kashirsky and Kurtis Bartliff, are currently riding four and nine game scoreless droughts, respecively.
One of the bright spots for this team has been defenseman Mike Wilson, who has stepped into the role of distributor left behind by former team captain Andrew Martens. Wilson has tallied 45 points so far, including 15 (5G, 10A) in 13 games so far this month. Wilson’s 45 points is good for third highest among ECHL defensemen, behind only Florida’s Mike Little and Allen’s Aaron Gens.
Wichita has been getting decent goaltending from Grant Rollheiser, who was acquired from Brampton on March 6th. In 8 appearances, Rollheiser is 4-3-0-1 with a 2.39 goals against average and .918 save percentage. Meanwhile, Tim Boron has fallen into rough times. In his last 10 games, Boron is 2-6, with a 3.79 goals against average and a .859 save percentage.
It is clear the Achilles’ heel for this Thunder team is its defense. Of those on the active roster (reserve and playing,) the team is a -62. Teams like Allen and Tulsa have feasted on the team’s inability at times to skate or move the puck out of the zone and defensive breakdowns.
Wichita has 7 games left and enters tonight’s game against the Missouri Mavericks two points behind Tulsa for the final playoff spot in the Central Division. For those interested in “games-in-hand,” Tulsa currently has one on Wichita (64 vs 65 games played,) while the Thunder have two on Quad City (67 games played) and one on Rapid City (66 games played.)
Wichita would need to win the final spot outright, since a tiebreaker would give the spot to Tulsa based on goal differential and head-to-head points. Of the final 7 games, 5 are against Allen and Tulsa, teams the Thunder are a combined 9-12-2-4 against. Wichita only has two regulation wins against the Oilers this season.
Six of the final seven games for Wichita will be played in the confines of Intrust Bank Arena, where the Thunder have a 14-13-0-3 record, but are currently are riding a 3-game losing streak at home and squandered leads in two of the three games.
“We’re a team of, I don’t know, we seem to play better on the road. That’s a shame, because we’ve got such a great fan base. It’s just very disappointing,” McClelland told the Wichita Eagle after Wednesday night’s home loss to the Quad City Mallards.
If Wichita is to make the playoffs, the team defense has to tighten up by eliminating costly turnovers and making better decisions with the puck in all areas of the ice, the offense needs to show up, and finally, the goaltending needs to be the best its been all season.
Kevin McClelland is known for making adjustments that help his team. Let’s see if he and his players make the adjustments necessary to get into the Kelly Cup playoffs.