(photo credit: Jack Lima Photography)

This past weekend marked the beginning of the ECHL season, with the welcome addition of seven teams from the CHL joining the fold. After the long off season, there is nothing more exciting for a hockey fan than opening night, even better when it is a matchup between heated rivals. The Stockton Thunder and the Bakersfield Condors kicked off their season openers with a 3-in-3 weekend series, with both teams playing host. The Thunder lost to the Condors on Friday night, 3-1 but then came from behind to win both games on Saturday down in Bakersfield and  at their home opener on Sunday. Both teams have new goaltending duos and chemistry is still developing. For the Thunder the comeback wins gave them confidence, an important asset to have early in the season.

“We gained a little confidence,” said Thunder Head Coach Rich Kromm after the win Sunday night. “Being able to come back like that down in their building, here (at home) tonite, was a little bit frustrating for the guys but they stuck with it and were able to turn the tide and carry the play both last night and tonite which is a positive.”

Forward Tyler Maxwell echoed his coaches sentiment and added, “You really build up team camaraderie like this and we definitely become closer as a group.”

Ryan Constant checks Francis Verreault-Paul (525x525)

Ryan Constant checks Condors Francis Verreault-Paul

The Thunder have many new faces in the lineup this season and it will take a little time to establish a team identity and line chemistry. Garet Hunt, Ryan Hayes, James Henry, Ryan Constant and Shawn Boutin make up the core of returning players for Stockton. The team has certainly not lost any of its grittiness, with Hunt racking up the penalty minutes in the opening weekend series with 19 minutes (an ECHL league lead) assessed in Sunday’s game alone, and Constant not far behind. The defensive core is led by both Constant and Boutin, who lend a steady presence to the blueline. For the weekend series, they were down to just five defensemen, as Keith Seabrook was out of the lineup. Boutin, when asked how the defense can maintain given the extra load being short a defenseman can bring said, “We just try to keep it simple, do the simple things and work together as a unit, move the puck and pass to the forwards and let them do the rest.”

The home opener made it apparent that several of the new forwards have tremendous hockey sense and a knack for creative play. Jack MacLellan, Tyler Shattock, Robin Soudek, Lukas Sutter (part of the Sutter Hockey Dynasty) and Tyler Maxwell got a chance to showcase their skills and feed one another passes over the weekend games as Coach Kromm moved players around in the search for chemistry and to accommodate for penalty time.

Ty Rimmer make a glove save on Tyler Maxwell's shot (525x350)

Condors Ty Rimmer makes a glove save on Tyler Maxwell’s shot

For Maxwell, the line shuffling was a good thing that he felt brought his team closer together.

“I think the last three games, everybody played with everybody so it was just the way it worked out with penalty trouble or whatever but we are a really tight group right now already so it’s good to see.”

Shattock had a strong showing both in his goal scoring ability and his presence in board battles. Several times, he delivered hard hitting checks that brought a Condor player to a grinding halt. He collected a number of penalties  (8PIMs) over the weekend for his aggressive style. In addition to collecting a goal and an assist over the course of the three game series, Shattock is tied with Ontario Reign forward Maxim Kitsyn in shots, totaling 15. After Sunday’s game, he commented on the need to play the body a bit more, especially in a three game series.

“Any time you can be physical on a team that likes to run and gun a little, I think it will wear them down and they get a little bit out of their game,” said Shattock. “Three games in two and a half days, I think you gotta play that way to wear them down in the third game.”

The Thunder have yet another weapon in their scoring arsenal, brought down from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and no stranger to the ECHL Western Conference in Peter Sivak. A former San Francisco Bull, the Czech native played for the Alaska Aces last season and was a major key to their Kelly Cup winning team, collecting 83 points in 67 games. As one of the most prolific scorers in the ECHL, Sivak wasted no time in starting his point streak, registering four points over the weekend in three games.

The Thunder will look to continue their strong start against a very different Alaska Aces team from last season during Military Appreciation Weekend on Friday and Saturday. Stockton will wear a “Military-themed” specialty jersey that will be auctioned off after the game on Saturday night, with proceeds benefiting Welcome Home Heroes Foundation.

A West Coast girl, born and raised in the Bay Area in the most non-traditional Hockey Market you could imagine for a long time... When the Sharks came to town it changed the Bay Area hockey landscape forever. Her first love will always be the Red Wings but she has embraced the Sharks since their debut in 1991. She has a passion for minor league grind-it-out-in the-corners hockey. Her heart broke when the ECHL Bulls folded , but luckily the Stockton Thunder are still close enough for her to get her gritty-hockey fix. Besides watching hockey, she is an American Tribal Style belly-dancer and trolls the blue-line, playing defence in a local rec hockey league... A somehow strange but balanced juxtaposition.

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