(photo: Jack Lima Photography)
For the first time this season, the Las Vegas Wranglers and the Stockton Thunder met for a Sunday late matinee game. The last time the two teams met, it was during last season’s playoffs in a tight race that saw Stockton battle back from a three game deficit to move on to the next round. The Thunder took the ice on tired legs, having just battled back to backs against the Utah Grizzlies on Friday and Saturday nights, getting the win 3-2 on Friday and coming up short 4-1 on Saturday. Las Vegas, who came into town the night before and watched Stockton get beat by the Grizzlies, woke up fresh and ready to go for the Sunday contest. Despite a better offensive effort on the part of the Thunder, they could not keep up with the Wranglers energy and rookie goaltender Travis Fullerton’s 30-save performance. Las Vegas took the game 3-2 with goals coming from Adam Huxley, Chad Nehring and Chris Kushneriuk. Thunder defenceman Sean Escobedo carried the goal scoring for the team, netting both goals, one of which came on the power play.
Las Vegas got the puck to the net first, capitalizing on the Thunder’s lethargy. Adam Huxley, a former Thunder player, took a feed from Geoff Paukovich in what became a mad scramble around the Thunder net. Goaltender Brian Foster tried to cover both sides of the net but Huxley was able to beat him to give the Wranglers a 1-0 lead. Huxley had just gotten out of the penalty box after him and Thunder Mathieu Gagnon traded blows and drew 5 minute major fighting penalties. The rest of the period generated more penalties with Huxley visiting the box twice more before the end of the first.
The Thunder were able to respond to tie the game 1-1 during the first period on a power play goal by defencemen Sean Escobedo. He has been a solid end to end player for the Thunder and has really stepped up his game to fill in as the injuries on the blueline continue for Stockton. Lee Baldwin and James Henry were able to get a good cycle going in the Wranglers zone and Escobedo let it rip from the blueline to get it past Fullerton.
“The first goal it was a great pass by Corey Trivino and Lee Baldwin, they really sold it up top,” said Escobedo. “I was just lucky enough to get it through.”
The second period gave Las Vegas another goal with Chad Nehring netting his 17th goal of the season and his eighth in just the last nine games. The Thunder were able to get their legs under them and they had several shorthanded opportunities that although close, didn’t result in a goal.
“The pressure we applied on the penalty kill forecheck was good tonite,” said Thunder Head Coach Rich Kromm about the shorthanded chances his team had throughout the night.
The Wranglers Chris Kushneriuk found the back of Foster’s net in the third period, putting Las Vegas ahead 3-1. Thunder Sean Escobedo, despite getting into some penalty trouble throughout the period, gave the Thunder hope as he garnered his second goal of the evening to bring the score to 3-2. It would again be Lee Baldwin who got the play started.
“Baldwin made a great shot and I just sort of wacked it in,” said Escobedo. “I got the sloppy second goal but it was really Baldwin who made the play.”
With regards to his frequent visits to the penalty box during the third period, Escobedo admitted that his timing wasn’t the best to put his team down a man.
“We had a collision and we were on the power play so it really wasn’t timely for me to take a penalty there. Unfortunately I got one and then after, the second one was just a selfish one by me. I took a cross-checking penalty and put the team down.”
The Las Vegas Wranglers were able to hold on to the lead during the final two minutes of the game as the Thunder pulled Foster for the extra attacker. Stockton came close and put on heavy pressure, particularly during the last ten minutes of the game. Coach Kromm would have liked to have seen that urgency and energy earlier in the game. He realizes the team has had to make some adjustments with the loss of so many guys to injury, but at the same time, his players need to step up and fill the gaps.
“I think that right now we have to take a look at what went wrong, what went right and evaluate where we are at right now. Maybe it’s time to have some one on one individual discussions with some players to refocus them as its been a long season and we have a lot of games in front of us.”
Some of the adjustments Kromm has had to make have been at the blueline, as the Thunder only have four natural defencemen with Constant, Boutin and Keenan out. Ben Rosen has been playing defence since the Colorado series in late February and he has been providing some solid support on the back end. Mathieu Gagnon filled in during the third period of the Saturday Utah game after Keenan did not return to the game and played his first game as a defenceman against the Wranglers paired up with Escobedo.
“It’s a position he hasn’t been playing all year but I think he was fine,” said Coach Kromm. “He played a pretty solid game for us back there, didn’t really make any mistakes and was pretty solid all over.”
Escobedo had nothing but praise for Rosen and Gagnon, who were able to make the switch.
“Every team gets hit with some injuries and we were fortunate enough to have guys like Rosen and Gagnon, guys who can step up and who have played defence before so it’s not too crazy for them. They need a little bit of adjustment time but they’ve done a tremendous job in the time they’ve played defence.”
Coach Kromm may look to sign a few defencemen who are coming out of college as that season wraps up and the timing is ripe to pick them up. There is no quick recovery for both Constant and Boutin and Keenan is still questionable. Nick Tremblay is also slated to be out for another few weeks as he recovers from an upper body injury he sustained in Friday night’s game against the Grizzlies.
On Monday, the New York Islanders and Bridgeport Sound Tigers recalled forwards Adam Brace and Riley Wetmore, sending Joey Diamond and Adam Quine down to Stockton. Both Brace and Wetmore have been producing for the Thunder since their arrival. Brace has picked up 5g-3a in 10 games played while Wetmore has 1g-2a in 9 games. Diamond and Quine are both star players for Bridgeport and the move is more to get the two quality playing time and to make sure that they are eligible to play if the Sound Tigers make the playoffs.
The Stockton Thunder head out the face the Utah Grizzlies yet again on Wednesday night in Salt Lake City before returning home to face the Alaska Aces for a two game series over the weekend.