(photo: Jack Lima Photography)
Rough starts to a season can either make or break a team. When you’ve struggled to win games, it forces a team to reflect on who they want to be. The Stockton Thunder are scrappers, a blue collar team, who have taken their difficult start and turned it around. They are known as the “comeback kids” for a reason. It’s not to say that the road ahead won’t still be rough, but the pieces are beginning to come together with solid wins a result. It helps when you bolster the blueline with sharp defencemen, giving your stellar goaltender room and time to see the puck. Complement that with talented offense who’ve gotten a spark from the return of two top notch goal scorers back from the AHL and you have a recipe for success.
After snapping a losing streak with a win against the Bakersfield Condors in a Thursday morning matchup the Thunder looked to continue the trend into the weekend set of games. There were glimpses of an improved team in the morning tilt, particularly on the defensive end, as goaltender Shane Owen got support from his blueliners and the goal totals were kept to a minimum. The weekend series highlighted the team’s improvements. In all three matchups, the Thunder got on the board first. Both Thursday and Saturday, goals came within the first minute of the opening period. Peter Sivak scored just 30 seconds in the first frame Thursday, and defencemen Austin Levi blasted a shot in just under 40 seconds off the opening faceoff on Saturday. “I was looking at the puck and it came right to me and I let it go,” said Levi about the early goal. “I wasn’t even looking at the net, I just ripped it as hard as I could and I was fortunate enough that it went in.” A flood of pucks then made their way into the net for the Thunder, with the final score a lopsided 7-4 victory.
Sunday goals didn’t appear until the second period of play, but the Thunder netted two power play goals in quick succession. One came from Sivak with Tyler Shattock providing the helper, and the next less than a minute later as a rocket from the blueline by Shaun Boutin, found its way through Condors netminder Ty Rimmer to the back of the net. Two more goals, one from James Henry on a nifty backhand play in front of the net and then Ryan Hayes iced the game with an empty-netter as the Condors scrambled to get a goal in the final minutes with an extra attacker on the ice. The Thunder netminder Owen only allowed the Condors one goal, one that could very likely have been disallowed given the contact forward Connor Jones made as he drove the net, sending both the puck and the goaltender into the back of the net. The final score 4-1.
New Tender Between the Pipes
The weekend series against the Condors featured a new netminder for the Thunder. Kent Simpson had been reassigned by the NHL affiliate New York Islanders. He was part of a trade that sent Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Islanders Organization. Lighthouse Hockey put together a nice summary of Simpson’s goaltending history. He hadn’t seen much action between the pipes, but stepped up with a stellar performance in net, stopping 27 of the 31 shots he faced. “I think I felt a little rusty at the beginning, not having played so much this year, but I think I settled in pretty well. It got a little hectic in the third there but that sometimes happens in those kind of games.”
Simpson’s job was made easier by the defence doing what they were supposed to do, keep the shots to the outside and make sure the goaltender can see the pucks that do come through. These simple things are a difference maker and something the goaltender appreciated. “It was just the simple things they were doing well, getting pucks out and giving them no room to breathe,” said Simpson about the defensive effort in front of him. “We played well in our dzone, played from the inside out and tried to limit their chances as much as we could. Obviously when you are able to see the puck, it definitely helps when you are able to see it all the way in.”
Due to injury with Isles Dave Leggio, Simpson’s time in the Thunder net was brief, as he was recalled to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers early Tuesday morning.
The Thunder have made some adjustments to their blueline, adding Austin Levi and John Ryder on the backend. Levi was assigned to the Thunder by the Carolina Hurricanes at the beginning of November and his impact in the defensive zone is substantial. He is a big body with good positioning, knows how to get in the lanes to slow down the play and can score from the point.
“He’s very mobile, big guy, he can really skate and he has a long reach,” said Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations Rich Kromm. “He’s not necessarily a power play guy, but does have the ability to do it. He’s a guy we’re hoping can come in here, solidify our depth, and play a lot of minutes for us.”
Levi is paired with veteran Thunder defenseman Shaun Boutin, and the two had a lot of success limiting the Condors chances and making key plays at the blueline. “They have a couple good lines that we have to be hard against and not let them get to the front of the net,” Levi said about breaking up Bakersfield’s offensive drive. “That is a big thing that we’ve been trying to do is box out guys in front of the net so that they don’t get second chances on goals.”
John Ryder came to the Thunder on a trade from the Allen Americans. He is a familiar face to the Western Conference as he played with the Colorado Eagles and the Ontario Reign last season. He made his debut with the team in Sundays’ game, adding a solid physical presence along the boards.
The Thunder will take on the Bakersfield Condors for a pre-Thanksgiving tilt, continuing their homestand with the Utah Grizzlies on Friday night before the Alaska Aces come into town. If Stockton can keep their game simple, limit their time on the penalty kill and continue to get pucks in the net, they will make a solid climb in the standings.