A red-hot power play and a solid performance by goalie Tyler Bunz allowed the Stockton Thunder to nail down a Kelly Cup playoff berth on Sunday (Feb. 24).
The Thunder scored four power-play goals in six opportunities and Bunz stopped 27 of the 28 shots he faced as the team clinched a playoff spot with a 4-1 victory over the Onatrio Reign in front of 5,796 appreciative spectators at Stockton Arena.
Equally noteworthy, the Thunder did it despite playing with a lineup that included only seven natural forwards because of injuries, recent call-ups and the suspension of captain Garet Hunt, who was disciplined by the ECHL for a hit from behind on Ontario’s Cameron Burt in a game on Friday.
“The numbers we had weren’t really in our favor,” said Bunz, who allowed only a third-period goal by Kyle Kraemer. “We had two choices. Either roll over and let them walk all over us, or play the way did. It was a pretty amazing effort by a lot of the guys. They played real well in front of me (and) we did a real good job of keeping shots to the outside. They came pretty hard at the end, but we did a good job of weathering the storm.”
The Thunder (29-22-9) got power-play goals from Brandon Davidson, Ryan Constant, Matt Reber and Tony DeHart. Reber and Davidson each had an assist to go along with their goals, and Maxime Boisclair was credited with three assists as the Thunder established a season high for extra-man goals in a game.
“When you’re down in numbers, sometimes your power play has got to really kick it into high gear,” Thunder Coach Matt Thomas said. “The guys stayed committed to the game plan, they executed well and our power play won us a hockey game.”
Not coincidentally, three of the four goals were scored by defensemen as Reber was the only Stockton forward to find the Ontario net.
“It was important for our defense to be really good, because that’s where we were healthy and we had numbers,” Thomas said. “The guys really stepped up.”
The four power-play goals were more than enough for Bunz, who improved his record to 13-13-4. Bunz beat Ontario goalie Sergey Kostenko, who was credited with 18 saves.
“I thought he did a great job,” Thomas said of Bunz. “To me, he was a huge reason why we won. He controlled momentum for us, and that’s what you need from your goalie when you’re short-handed.”
With regard to sewing up a playoff spot, Thomas said the team now can focus on trying to earn home-ice advantage in the opening round by finishing among the top four teams in the Western Conference. Stockton sits in fourth place in the conference, six points ahead of the fifth-place Las Vegas Wranglers.
“It’s nice to secure it and get it behind you, but we’ve got loftier goals for ourselves,” Thomas said of the playoff clinch. “We want to stay in a home-ice spot. We want to have home ice, so we’ve got a lot to fight for still.”
Davidson allowed the Thunder to take a 1-0 lead into the first intermission by scoring off assists from Reber and Boisclair with slightly more than two and a half minutes left in the first period. The goal was Davidson’s fourth in seven games since being assigned to the Thunder from the Oklahoma City Barons of the American Hockey League on Feb. 12. Davidson also has been credited with four assists in those games, giving him eight points in his seven appearances with the Thunder.
Constant doubled Stockton’s lead when he netted his eighth goal of the season off assists from Shawn Weller and Matt Bergland not quite 11 minutes into the second period. The Thunder nursed the 2-0 lead into the second intermission and extended the advantage to 3-0 when Reber scored just 29 seconds into the third period. Boisclair and Mike Little were credited with assists on Reber’s goal, which was his ninth of the season.
“We just moved the puck around quick,” Boisclair said in describing the team’s power-play proficiency. “We were trying to get them a little bit off, and that’s what we did. We took the puck to the net and the puck went in.”
Ontario (38-14-5) cut its deficit to 3-1 when Kraemer scored his 22nd goal of the season off an assist from Matthew Clune with barely more than seven minutes left in the third period, during which the Reign enjoyed a 16-5 edge in shots.
DeHart capped Stockton’s power-play explosion by scoring his fifth goal of the season off assists from Davidson and Boisclair with just 41 seconds to play.
Bunz and Ontario’s Derek Couture squared off at the end of the game and each was charged with a roughing penalty at the final horn.
“We’re both competitive guys,” Bunz said. “I’m fighting for my position on the ice and so is he. Every game we play, we battle pretty hard in front of the net. I think at the end of the game, we just kind of had enough of each other. That’s the game of hockey. He’s a great player (and) he does a good job in front of the net. He bugs me a lot and he disturbs me. He does his job well. If he can disturb me and get me off my game, that’s a positive for him.”
The Thunder will be idle until facing the Reign again on Saturday (Mar. 2) in Ontario. The teams will battle again the next day at Stockton Arena when the Thunder will begin a five-game home stand.
The box score from Sunday’s game can be viewed here: