The Stockton Thunder rode one hot line to a pivotal victory on Sunday (Mar. 10).
Linemates Shawn Weller, Ryan Hayes and Matt Bergland were on the ice for every Stockton goal as the Thunder defeated the Ontario Reign 4-3 in front of 4,358 spectators at Stockton Arena.
Hayes and Weller accounted for most of the damage as Hayes delivered two goals and Weller had a goal and three assists. Stockton defenseman Nathan Deck chipped in with a goal and an assist as the Thunder took another step toward nailing down home-ice advantage for the first round of the upcoming Kelly Cup playoffs.
“It was good that line was able to step up,” said Thunder Coach Matt Thomas, whose team has seven regular-season games remaining. “They were real good. Ryan Hayes showed you what he’s capable of, which was nice, and so did Shawn Weller. Those two guys felt a little snake-bit, and they were playing a little bit frustrated.”
Stockton’s victory, combined with losses by both the Las Vegas Wranglers and Colorado Eagles, left the Thunder (32-24-9) six points ahead of Las Vegas and seven ahead of Colorado in the race for fourth place in the ECHL’s Western Conference. Ontario (42-16-6) has clinched a first-place finish in the Pacific Division, and the top four teams in the conference at the end of the regular season will enjoy home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
Weller helped get the Thunder rolling by setting up Deck’s goal not quite three minutes after the game’s opening faceoff. Hayes followed with his first goal of the game off assists from Weller and Shawn Boutin about two and a half minutes later, but Mario Lamoureux scored for the Reign with just 36 seconds left in the first period to leave the Thunder clinging to a 2-1 lead at the first intermission.
Weller delivered an unassisted goal at 7:51 of the second period to give the Thunder a 3-1 advantage, but the Reign again pulled close when Kyle Kraemer scored with 2:43 remaining in the period. Hayes answered just 51 seconds later, when he scored off assists from Weller and Deck to allow the Thunder to take a 4-2 lead into the second break.
The goals by Hayes were his first since being obtained by the Thunder in a Mar. 1 trade with the South Carolina Stingrays.
“We finally put the pieces together,” Hayes said of his line’s production. “We all just clicked, and it finally came together. It felt good to finally score with a new team. It really came together tonight, and it was awesome.”
Kraemer struck again not quite six minutes into the third period to cut Stockton’s cushion to 4-3, but Ontario was unable to produce a tying goal despite out-shooting the Thunder 15-4 in the period.
The game marked the seventh time the Thunder and Reign have squared off since Feb. 15 and the teams will meet twice more before the end of the season. Such familiarity has promoted some hostility between the teams, and tempers flared in the third period, in which the clubs combined for 44 penalty minutes. The infractions included a match penalty and a game misconduct against Ontario’s Derek Couture for deliberate intent to injure Stockton’s Colten Hayes.
“It’s pretty safe to say that we don’t really like each other, but I think it’s just two teams that take a lot of pride in competing,” Thomas said. “Things boiled over a little bit at times tonight, but I think it was just two teams scratching and clawing to get a win. It’s obviously very important for us to get that home-ice spot and very important for them to get first overall, so there was a lot on the line for both teams.”
Despite the large shot discrepancy in the third period, the Thunder finished with a 31-28 edge in shots for the game. Thunder goalie Tyler Bunz made 25 saves in earning the victory, and Ontario goalie Dustin Carlson was credited with 27 saves.
The Thunder will conclude a five-game home stand on Wednesday (Mar. 13), when the San Francisco Bulls visit Stockton Arena.
The box score from Sunday’s game can be viewed here: