WICHITA, Kan. – Monday night’s game six of the Mountain Division Semifinal series between the Colorado Eagles and Wichita Thunder had everything a hockey fan would want in a game: fast-paced, hard-hitting, finesse plays with the puck, solid goaltending, and two teams who battled back every time the other side got an edge.
Unfortunately for Thunder faithful, their guys in the black, blue & white couldn’t answer the bell one more time.
“For the amount of guys we went through this season, it’s a pretty tight group,” Wichita Thunder head coach Malcolm Cameron said. “That’s going be the hardest thing tomorrow not coming to the rink to coach them, because I’ve grown pretty fond of this group. They did everything I could ask of them.”
Joey Ratelle scored with three minutes left in the third period to spoil Wichita’s comeback attempt and helped Colorado win on Monday night by the final of 5-3 at INTRUST Bank Arena. With the victory, the Eagles win the series in six games, winning the series four games to two and will meet the winner of the Idaho/Allen series in the Mountain Division Finals, which begin Saturday night in Loveland, Colorado.
Wichita got on the scoreboard first in game six, when Dyson Stevenson fed a no-look, behind the back pass to Mark MacMillan, who fired a wrist shot to beat Lukas Hafner over the shoulder to give the Thunder a 1-0 advantage. For Wichita, the power-play goal was their third straight game with such a marker, and it was the fifth time in the six-game series that the Thunder opened the scoring.
“I thought our team responded really well and didn’t get frustrated after that power-play goal,” remarked Eagles’ head coach Aaron Schneekloth.
It would not take long for Colorado to strike back, as just 1:02 later forward J.C. Beaudin grabbed a drop pass in the left circle and snapped a wrister past Starrett to tie the game at 1-1 with 12:08 remaining in the first period. Beaudin led all skaters with four goals in the series.
In the waning moments first period, Wichita was putting significant pressure on Colorado netminder Lukas Hafner, and during a scramble, Hafner made a sprawling save but got up very gingerly, appearing to be favoring one of his legs as he skated to the Eagles’ locker room. The second-year netminder would not return to the contest.
With the game still tied at 1-1 heading into the second period and Joe Cannata taking over for an injured Hafner in net, the Eagles would grab its first lead of the night on the power play. Capitalizing off some miscommunication between Ralph Cuddemi and Jeremy Beaudry, defenseman Jake Marto flew down the left wing before burying a wrist shot from the circle that would give the Eagles a 2-1 edge 6:58 mark of the period.
Chad Butcher tied the game at 8:13 of the middle stanza as he re-directed a pass across the crease from Evan Polei to make it 2-2.
With under two minutes to play in the period, Michael Joly, who the Thunder had done a good job of holding in-check all series, scored his second goal of the playoffs on a wrap-around, beating Shane Starrett to give Colorado a 3-2 lead heading into the locker room.
With their backs against the wall, Wichita controlled much of the action in the third period, outshooting the Eagles 13-9. During a net-mouth scramble, Polei collected a rebound and put it past Cannata to tie the game at 3-3.
“We tied [the game] our style,” Cameron said. “Throwing it to the front of the net and crashing.”
With 3:37 left in regulation, Ratelle found a loose puck that got through a Thunder defender during an odd-man rush and made it 4-3. Matt Garbowsky wrapped up the scoring by finding the open net and making it 5-3.
“I felt all year, we played the [Eagles] tough,” Cameron said. “I’m really, really proud of this group.”
This year’s edition of the Eagles is younger than last year’s championship team and Schneekloth told his club after the victory there are a lot of teachable moments to come from this first round series.
“I felt we had a lot of hard lessons in this series,” Schneekloth said. “Guys gained some valuable experience in what to expect in the playoffs — managing and controlling all the momentum swings and the highs and lows. It’s great for a lot of these young players to get that experience of playing in the playoffs and what it takes to win and close out a series. I think it’s a big confidence builder, as well.”
In the handshake line after the contest, Schneekloth praised Cameron for the job he did on getting Wichita to the playoffs this season.
“[Cameron’s] got a real strong hockey club over there. For the amount of turnover he had this year and challenges every team faces at this level, to make the playoffs is a huge accomplishment and they did an outstanding job,” Schneekloth said. “They gave us a helluva fight.”