The Stockton Thunder and the San Francisco Bulls will once again tussle over the weekend on Friday and Saturday nights, the last in a playoff-like five game series. Last weekend’s three game tilt showed two fiercely competitive teams that have no love for one another on the ice. The games were a mix of heavy hitting along the boards, center ice fights and an offensive onslaught by both teams. The fireworks and bad blood started in the first game of the series when Thunder Captain Garet Hunt received a game misconduct during the first 40 seconds of the opening frame for his hit on Bulls Forward Berkley Scott. The game escalated from there, both in penalties and goals, the biggest blow coming in the third period when Thunder defenceman Ryan Constant threw a punch at Bulls Forward Dale Mitchell knocking him out cold on the ice. Constant received a match penalty and a two game suspension for his actions and Mitchell is still recovering from a concussion and is not expected to be back in the lineup for the weekend home and home series. The Bulls won the Friday contest in a decisive 5-2 victory and both teams combined for 87 penalty minutes.
The Saturday night contest turned into a firewagon kind of tilt, with both teams racking up goals and yet more penalty minutes as emotions from the previous night literally bled over into the game. Each team showed their offensive skill, for the Bulls the game highlighted their play in the neutral zone and their dangerous forwards. “It’s frustrating to keep getting the lead and then giving it up,” said Thunder Head Coach Rich Kromm after Saturday night’s game. “The Bulls are a dangerous team offensively, they have lots of skill and they can score goals.” Bulls Forward Tyler Gron has been on a point a game pace with Brett Findlay close on his heels, and Dean Ouellet starting to get hot. San Francisco forward Adrian Foster was proving to be an offensive force, but the Bulls will be without his skillset, due to his recent call-up to the AHL Abbotsford Heat.
Thunder forward Greg Miller echoed Coach Kromm’s sentiments about San Francisco’s speed and offensive skill. “We know they are a quick team, good offensively, and they thrive on transitions so if we can limit our turnovers at the blueline I think we will be alright.”
The Thunder have been shorthanded with the call-up of Andrew Clark to the AHL affiliate Bridgeport Sound Tigers and a mounting list of injuries. With the loss of Ryan Constant, it put them down one more man, but the defense has really stepped up for the team and shows their versatility and depth. “The defensive contribution, it’s huge, especially when they keep the cycle alive in the offensive zone for us,” said Greg Miller. “When they dart down the wall and keep it in you can keep going with the offense, you can hem that team in. It’s also a testament to our high forwards who are helping them out as well, we are working as a five man unit.”
Thunder defenceman Mike Dalhuisen, who started the season hot with Stockton and then played a few games with Bridgeport before being sidelined with injury, has returned and is again making an impact at the blueline. He is not shy about jumping in for the puck to break a rush up the ice, blocking a shot when it counts and his shot from the point is deadly. Dalhuisen was a major contributor to the Thunder win in the second game of the series, dropping the gloves with Bulls Blueliner Kyle Bigos in the opening frame to set the tone and scoring the first goal for Stockton in their comeback bid during the second period when they were down 2-1.
Line chemistry and the recent addition of forward Mitch Bruijsten won Stockton the second and third games in the series. The loss of Andrew Clark forced Coach Kromm to juggle the forward lines a bit and call back Bruijsten, who had been with the Thunder during training camp but was then cut at the beginning of the season, playing with the SPHL Mississippi Surge for 20 games to start the year. Bruijsten tallied 4 points for the Thunder in the 7-6 OT win and found magic on the ice with his linemates Greg Miller and Joey Martin. “Every shift they were dangerous, all night long they skated well, they supported each other offensively and found the net tonight,” said Head Coach Rich Kromm after Saturday night’s barn burner.
Of the developing chemistry Thunder forward Joey Martin remarked, “We’ve had a couple games together and I think we are finding our chemistry. I think we all bring something different to the line, we are good reading off each other, playing well and building off our momentum right now.”
Mitch Bruijsten is happy to have the chance to be back on Thunder ice and show the league that he belongs here. On his linemates Miller and Martin, “We cycle the puck really well, and we know where we are every time we are on the ice,” he said after his 4 point night.
Heading in to the weekend series, both teams will have a better understanding of each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Thunder forward Matt Bergland stressed, “We want to learn from the past three, bear down a little more and take it day by day. You definitely want to play full 60 minute games and let them know we are going to be there for the next couple of games We need to learn from our mistakes.”
There will also be some raw emotions as Ryan Constant will be back in the line-up for the Stockton Thunder. If the Bulls are to succeed against the Thunder, they will have to limit their penalties and prevent the top-rated power play unit to get ice time, so team discipline will be key. They will also need to push through the Thunder defensive core of Dalhuisen, Oslanski and recently returned Sean Escobedo to get pucks in past the stellar tending of goalie Brian Foster. Shutting down key forwards Hunt, Larson, Miller and Henry should also top San Francisco’s to-do list.
Stockton Thunder ice will also look a little different to the visiting San Francisco Bulls. After last Sunday’s matchup the Thunder organization held a painting party with 845 parents and kids, adding an artistic flair to the ice surface for “Kids Take Over”. The ice was then sealed over and will be played on for the first “Painted Classic” when San Francisco comes to town on Friday. The Thunder team has had the advantage of having practice on the ice over the last week and it will be interesting to see how the fan art affects puck visibility during actual game play. A video and comments on the team’s first practice can be seen here.
The Stockton Thunder meet the San Francisco Bulls Friday January 3rd for a 7:30 matchup at Stockton Arena.
Saturday night January 4th the Thunder travel to the Cow Palace to face the Bulls at 7:30 pm in the final of the 5-game series.