A big game evoked a big response from the Stockton Thunder on Friday night (Mar. 8).
With significant playoff implications at stake, the Thunder answered the bell and skated to a 4-3 victory over the Las Vegas Wranglers before a crowd of 4,456 at Stockton Arena.
The decision left the Thunder six points ahead of both the Wranglers and the Colorado Eagles for fourth place in the ECHL’s Western Conference. The top four teams in the conference will have home-ice advantage in the upcoming Kelly Cup playoffs. The Thunder and Wranglers will meet again at Stockton Arena on Saturday, and the Ontario Reign will visit Stockton on Sunday.
“We came in looking at this as a really critical weekend for us in terms of how the standings shake out,” Thunder Coach Matt Thomas said. “There’s two teams right now trying to take what we have, (which is) the four spot and the last home-ice spot. So, these games become critical and every game after this is going to be critical.”
Maxime Boisclair helped pace the Thunder (31-23-9) to the victory by recording a goal and two assists. Garet Hunt, Mike Little and Brandon Davidson also had goals for the Thunder, and Matt Reber was credited with a pair of assists. Robbie Smith, Judd Blackwater and Sean Wiles each scored for Las Vegas.
“Everybody chipped in and we played hard,” said Boisclair, who registered his second three-point game in 20 outings with the Thunder. “We wanted to put a seed in their head that if we play them in the playoffs, it’s going to be a hard battle.”
Boisclair got the Thunder off to a quick start when he scored his seventh goal of the season not quite two minutes into the first period. Matt Ambroz and Colten Hayes had assists on Boisclair’s goal.
Hunt pushed Stockton’s lead to 2-0 with a power-play goal just five minutes into the first period. Reber and Ryan Constant were credited with assists on Hunt’s goal, which was his fifth of the season and left every member of Stockton’s checking line (Hunt, Ambroz and Hayes) with a point in the game's opening moments.
“Those guys often don’t get a lot of credit, and those guys got us going,” Thomas said. “They figured in on the first two goals, and that allows your skilled players to get into their rhythm and look to create opportunities.”
Smith scored his third goal of the season for the Wranglers with slightly less than five minutes remaining in the first period to leave Stockton holding a 2-1 lead at the first intermission.
The Wranglers (30-26-5) pulled into a 2-2 tie when Blackwater scored his 16th goal of the season midway through the second period, but Little delivered a power-play goal slightly less than three minutes later to give the Thunder a 3-2 advantage. Boisclair and Nathan Deck had assists on Little’s seventh goal of the season.
Boisclair capped his three-point night with an assist on Davidson’s goal, which came with exactly one minute left in the second period and allowed the Thunder to take a 4-2 lead into the second break. Reber also had assist on Davidson’s goal, which was his seventh of the season.
The Wranglers cut their deficit to 4-3 when Wiles scored a power-play goal at 13:36 of the third period, but the Thunder held on the rest of the way. The goal by Wiles was his 24th of the season and came while the Wranglers were enjoying a two-man advantage.
Little said the victory was particularly sweet because it came against one of the teams Stockton is trying to hold off in the battle for playoff seeding.
“Points in the standings are huge,” Little said. “It plays into home-ice advantage. It’s the type of thing where you need to send a message that this is going to be a tough building to play in, and if we have home-ice advantage, you’re in for a tough series against our team.”
Thunder goalie Tyler Bunz made 24 saves in improving his record to 15-14-4, and Wranglers goalie Joe Fallon also was credited with 24 saves.
Before the game, the Thunder announced the signing of free-agent goalie Matt Cooper, who recently completed his collegiate career at Johnson & Wales University in Providence (RI), where he had a career record of 39-37-5 with a goals-against average of 3.32 and a save percentage of .905.
The box score from Friday’s game can be viewed here: