(photo: Jack Lima Photography)
It’s the end of a long season. The fatigue is beginning to set in and the injuries are mounting. In the minor leagues, the roster changes on a weekly basis and if the team can’t adapt or cope with the losses and the stress, it begins to show on the scoreboard. For the Stockton Thunder, they have had their fair share of injuries to key components of the team. Their roster has changed weekly, as players have been moved up and down from the AHL affiliate Sound Tigers. The team has played most of the month of March at home, which in theory should have helped them cope with the injuries and player movement. Their record, shows, in the words of Thunder Head Coach Rich Kromm, “a fragile club.” Stockton has won only 3 home games of the 10 played in March, and lost 5 out of the last 6 games played. The team has also struggled to find it’s offensive magic, being held to 2 goals or less in 9 out of the last 12 games played, with most goals coming on the man-advantage. Even the powerplay, which the Thunder special teams has dominated in the league with a 20% success rate, has been challenged to find its flow.
The Idaho Steelheads three-game series encapsulated the month long slide the Thunder have traveled. The first game of the set, the Steelheads walked away with 4 goals and the Thunder had two tallies from recently returned from injury forward Ryan Hayes, one which was a power play goal. Of the six opportunities on the man advantage, including one 5 on 3 situation, the Steelheads penalty killers were able to hold Stockton to just one power play goal.
The second game of the series exposed the Thunder’s offensive and defensive weaknesses, as the Steelheads plowed Stockton 4-1. The Steelheads opened the scoring as they had in the first game to take an early lead, with Idaho forward Justin Mercier placing the puck behind Stockton goaltender Parker Milner with a wicked shot from the right circle.
“I thought we started okay and then they got the 2 goals,” said Thunder Head Coach Rich Kromm. “After the second goal we seemed to loose a little bit of our focus. I think we are a fragile club right now and I think that showed after that second goal.”
It would be Thunder forward Ryan Hayes scoring the lone goal for Stockton, and the Steelheads offensive push was too much for the taxed and young Thunder blueliners. There were multiple odd-man rushes in Idaho’s favour with the end result equaling goals for the Steelheads.
“There were a couple pitches where we didn’t have good support from our forwards,” said Coach Kromm on his defencemen’s stuggles. “The D got hung out to dry a little bit and there was a couple where we pinched where we didn’t need to pinch. It’s just decision making with reading the numbers, seeing whether we have support or not.”
Thunder netminder Parker Milner did what he could to prevent pucks from getting to the back of the net and made some incredible saves when he was left to tend on his own. Several Steelheads would have multi-point nights, with Jason Bast collecting 2 goals and an assist, Justin Mercier with a goal and an assist, and Luke Judson garnering 2 points. Idaho went a perfect 4 for 4 on the penalty kill, keeping the Thunder out of reach of a power play goal.
Stockton traveled to Ontario for a Saturday evening game against the Reign after battling the Steelheads, an unfortunate circumstance of scheduling for the Thunder as Idaho had originally been slated to play the now defunct San Francisco Bulls, instead leaving them with a night off. Although the game began on a positive note for the Thunder, with Stockton limiting the Reign to just one shot on goaltender Brian Foster in the opening period, Ontario would get the first puck to the back of the net on an unlucky bounce that found Reign forward Rocco Carzo with the puck on his stick. Thunder forward Matt Bergland was able to squeak the puck by Ontario goalie J.P Anderson in the waning minutes of the third period after Joey Diamond and Alan Quine carried the play into the offensive zone, but one goal was not enough and the Reign beat the Thunder 3-1
The Thunder returned home for the Sunday matchup against the Steelheads and the first period showed the evidence of tired legs for the Stockton team. Steelheads Mercier would again strike first to put Idaho up 1-0. Stockton could not respond back until the second period, when Alan Quine drew a penalty in front of the Idaho net creating a Thunder power play opportunity. Forward Joey Martin would quickly cash in for the tie goal right off the face-off. Idaho then took the momentum scoring three unanswered goals from Tommy Grant, Russ Sinkewich and Rob Linsmayer in the second and third periods to take the score 4-1. Thunder Quine and Hayes gave them hope again as they fired in two quick goals ten seconds apart late in the final period. The rally was too late, with the Steelheads winning 4-3 and sweeping the series.
“It was good that we kept coming and we didnt quit,” said Coach Kromm. “It was a big goal. When Quine scored it provided some life and gave us some hope there but when things go bad, a bounce goes the wrong way, guys lose a little bit of faith in what is happening so we have to build that faith up again.”
After the game, Thunder forward Alan Quine commented on the teams’ confidence, especially after goals against. “We’ve been going through that quite a bit it seems lately where we are in the game and we get scored on and it deflates the bench. We’ve talked and we’ve got to do a better job of not getting down, not getting too high, not getting too low and make sure we play a full 60 minutes.”
Thunder forward Joey Martin commented that the team seemed in a rut and that guys were getting frustrated. “I think we just have to move on and learn from our mistakes and build on the positives that we have.”
Martin, recently returned from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, says that he’s trying to work hard no matter where he’s at and provide some leadership, particularly since he is a third year guy and there are a lot of new faces in the locker room. He says it’s important to stay positive, and that they need to turn things around. “We need to be playing good hockey before we get into the playoffs.”
As Stockton heads into the final set of games before the playoffs, the roster will make some more adjustments as Bridgeport has recalled Alan Quine, Mathieu Gagnon, and Jason Clark. In return, Stockton will receive back rookie standout Andrew Clark, who was released from his PTO with the Sound Tigers, as well as Riley Wetmore, Jeremy Langlois and Matt Mangene.
The return of Andrew Clark could be the spark the Thunder need, as he led Stockton in the playoff push last season and posted impressive numbers at the beginning of this season before heading up to the AHL. There is also hope that key defenceman Ryan Constant, a league leader in power play assists, will make a return from injury after taking a blocked shot in the Colorado series back in February. Constant’s return could be a big bolster to the Thunder blueline and will provide maturity and leadership for the young dmen.
The Thunder face the Ontario Reign at home on Wednesday night before the Utah Grizzlies come back to town for a weekend two game series. The Grizzlies have surged since the beginning of January with stellar goaltending coming from two-time Warrior ECHL Goaltender of the Month Igor Bobkov. The Thunder will need to have their offensive house in order and their defense on the lookout for Danick Paquette, David Vallorani, and Phil Mangan who were quick to take advantage of open ice.