STOCKTON, Calif. – The Stockton Thunder found a way to stay alive in the Kelly Cup Playoffs against the Reading Royals and earn game five. The Thunder won game four 4-3, in an intense game at the Stockton Arena before 6,202 fans.
The first two periods the Thunder dominated the puck, throwing it at Riley Gill in the net for the Royals. A breakaway by Matt Reber led to him earning a penalty shot at 4:32 into the game. But he wasn’t able to score on Gill. T.J. Syner scored the first goal of the game at 7:54, when a shot from Yannick Tifu rebounded off Olivier Roy’s pad back into play, but pulled him slightly off center of the net, and Syner was able to slap it home blocker side for the 1-0 lead.
At 10:25 a pileup in front of the Thunder net, knocked Roy down. The blow was enough to force him off the ice for the rest of the game in favor of Tyler Bunz. Bunz, an Oilers prospect has not had much ice time during the playoffs. In fact, he had played less than 70 full minutes. But the Thunder seemed to rally around him.
A Royal penalty gave Stockton a chance to even the score, when Shawn Weller scored on the power play at 11:05. Then just over a minute later, Erik Hunter scored to put the Thunder up 2-1.
The second period, a break away by Matt Reber, earned him a goal at 11:19 and would be the sole goal of the period. By the end of the second, the Thunder led in shots on goal 27-16.
The third period led to more aggression and urgency on the ice from both teams. The Royals scored at 6:01 when Kirk MacDonald drew out Bunz and Joel Champagne scored to close the gap 3-2. Erik Hunter scored goal number four at 7:14, with an assist from Shawn Boutin. The eventual game winner from Hunter was his fifth of the playoffs.
Reading rallied and pounded away at Bunz, who made a series of great saves, turning away 13 shots on goal for the period. Ian O’Connor scored at 13:42, to bring the Royals back to within one. Gill was pulled with just over a minute remaining in favor of the extra skater Then at 19:11, Garet Hunt was sent to the penalty box, and the Royals were still not able to find the net with four on six. At the final bell, the Thunder were victorious and will get another opportunity.
Following the game, Stockton’s coach Matt Thomas said, “It’s just like a made for T.V. movie. Bunz has been awesome. He’s had to support Olivier the whole way. For him to go in and do what he did; you have to tip your hat to him. It’s hard to come in cold; especially when you haven’t played. That’s huge.”
Another addition to tonight’s team was the return of defenseman Ryan Constant. Constant was injured in a freak incident that occurred while he was leaving the ice during practice sessions in Alaska, before game one of the second series. His return tonight bumped Gabriel Levesque, but seemed to add some size to the Thunder lineup.
“He’s another inspiration. I think when you get to this time of the year, you need something to inspire you. He’s one of the best defensemen in the league. For him to come back, it’s great. He had to work really hard to get back from that severe of an injury.” Thomas continued, “The guy has heart and passion for this team. It’s what hockey players do. They come back.”
The Stockton crowd played another huge roll in tonight’s win and Thomas was pleased with his team’s performance for them.
“The crowd was awesome. We played well to get them into it. We want Stockton to be proud of us. They gave us the energy we needed. We game them some reasons to cheer,” Said Thomas.
Earlier in the week Thomas earned his own place in hockey history, when he became the ECHL leader in the all-time playoff games coached (95), surpassing Hall of Famer John Brophy, following game three.
“Just to be mentioned with some of those guys, like John Brophy, in the same sentence. That’s really cool,” said Thomas. “The first game I coached was against John Brophy, now coming full circle with my name etched in history with his. It’s pretty cool.”
Thomas entered this Kelly Cup Final as third in ECHL postseason history, with 48 wins. He won a Kelly Cup title with Atlantic City in 2003 as assistant coach. This is Thomas’ second appearance in the finals.
The Thunder win tonight will allow them to return on Saturday night for game five, but still face a must win situation, as they trail Reading 3-1 in the series to date.
Game five will be in Stockton, and is expected to bring well over the six thousand fans from game four. It’s going to be very loud in that arena.