Stockton hits town "playoff-hardened'' for Kelly Cup games against Alaska Aces

Doyle Woody

For the Stockton Thunder, their journey to the second round of the ECHL's Kelly Cup playoffs took them down a perilous path littered with obstacles, gut-checks, and myriad tests of character and faith.

In beating the Las Vegas Wranglers in seven games, which included a 3-2 series deficit and the entire series played in just 10 days, the Thunder endured and overcame:

A seemingly crippling 3-0 deficit with just 15-plus minutes left in regulation of Game 6, in which they faced elimination.

Two overtime games in which they never led until the game-winning strike, and a 2-0 deficit after two periods in one of those extended matches.

Being shutout victims twice in a span of three games, and a goal-drought of 146 minutes, 42 seconds, or the equivalent of more than two regulation games and one period of hockey.

Never scoring the first goal of a game until Game 7.

And now the Thunder face the regular-season champion Alaska Aces, with Game 1 in the best-of-7 Western Conference semifinal series set for Friday night at Sullivan Arena. Game 2 is Saturday night at Sullivan.

"We're a little bit playoff-hardened, I like to think,'' said Stockton coach Matt Thomas.

The crucible of postseason hockey became harder for the Thunder near the end of practice at Sullivan on Thursday afternoon, when standout defenseman Ryan Constant suffered a serious upper-body injury. Constant, Stockton's leading playoff scorer among defensemen and leading goal scorer among blueliners in the regular season, fell through an unlatched gate at the visitors' bench, Thomas said, and will not play this weekend.

After winning each of the first two games of the Las Vegas series in overtime at Stockton Arena, the Thunder lost three straight games at Las Vegas and were shut out twice by Wranglers goaltender Joe Fallon.

In Game 6 in Stockton, with Fallon in net and turning aside all 30 Thunder shots through two periods, Las Vegas owned a 3-0 lead nearly five minutes into the third period. And, according to Thomas and Thunder captain Garet Hunt, some fans were heading for the exits. But Stockton rookie Andrew Clark kick-started a remarkable comeback when he scored just 30 seconds after the Wranglers went ahead 3-0.

"As soon as we got that first one, it was like a hundred bricks off our back,'' Hunt said.

Still, more than seven more minutes elapsed before Shawn Weller furnished a deflection that trimmed Stockton's deficit to 3-2. Hunt followed with an equalizing tip-in 85 seconds later and rookie defenseman Daniel Gibbs -- he scored just eight goals in 266 career Western Hockey League games -- roofed a game-winning blast with less than four minutes left in regulation. Weller's empty-net goal in the final minute delivered Game 7 and kept the arena rocking.

"There were 3,600 people in the building,'' Thomas said. "It sounded like 8,000.''

Hunt, the brother of former UAA defenseman Trevor Hunt, has played five seasons in Stockton, where he is a fan favorite. He said the noise in the arena that night was deafening.

"It's probably the loudest I've ever heard the arena,'' Hunt said. "It was non-stop noise from the first (Stockton) goal until the fifth. Even in the parking lot leaving, everyone was honking their horn.''

Las Vegas' loss in Game 6 marked the first time all season the Wranglers lost in regulation after leading through two periods.

Stockton raced to a 3-0 first-period lead in Game 7 and won 6-4.

That Game 6 victory, though, proved the turning point.

"We really earned our swagger after that,'' Hunt said. "We pretty much went through everything in that series. It's only going to get harder.''

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