Thunder settles for 3rd seed in Conference, heads into playoffs with 7-1-3 run
LAS VEGAS - Defenseman Jordan Bendfeld picked up a game winning goal, added an assist and goaltender Tyson Sexsmith had a season high 36 stops, tying a career-high, to lift the Stockton Thunder (37-23-12, 84 points) to a 4-3 victory against the Las Vegas Wranglers, closing the regular season before 6,122 fans on Saturday at Orleans Arena.
The Thunder, who tied Bakersfield for first place in the Pacific Division but earned the #3 seed in the Western Conference with the tie-breaker favoring Bakersfield, finished with a 7-1-3 sprint in the final 11 games and will face the Utah Grizzlies in the first round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs, owning home ice advantage.
Jarrett Konkle, Craig Valette and Kelly Czuy added goals for the Thunder, held off a two-goal Las Vegas comeback and a goal mouth scramble in the final seconds of regulation to tie a franchise record for most points in one season and broke another with 19 road victories.
"Obviously it got crazy at the end but we finished off with a good win," said Thunder head coach Matt Thomas. "We passed the puck well, certainly something I thought we did better than last night. I'm feeling good about our team and where we're at heading into playoff time. There are some tough decisions to be had for our roster but it's good to see that we're playing so well and we've been effective down the stretch."
Konkle was awarded his 17th goal of the season with 3:32 into the game, when he re-directed Jordan Bendfeld's blast from the right point through Las Vegas backup goaltender Billy Sauer's five-hole.
Just 3:13 later, Konkle found Craig Valette with a cross-ice pass to the left circle on a 2-on-1 shorthanded break, whose wrist shot was stashed past the blocker side of Sauer for a 2-0 Thunder lead.
Just 15 seconds later, Las Vegas quickly responded by slicing the deficit to 2-1 on a Chris Francis goal when he dragged the puck from behind the net and slipped a forehand shot through Tyson Sexsmith's five hole.
The Thunder blew the game open in the second period with back-to-back goals in s span of 3:47, beginning with former Wrangler Kelly Czuy's fourth of the season with 11:29 left on a give-and-go. Czuy finished a backhander off the rush with a feed by Jason Pitton from the left circle, who fed Czuy at the goal mouth.
Bendfeld's third goal of the season boosted the edge to 4-1, when he drove the net from the right corner and slipped a forehand bid off the pad of Sauer and into the net, while Czuy crashed the goal mouth.
Las Vegas attempted a comeback, beginning with Justin Bernhardt's backdoor goal with 43 seconds left in the second when he converted Ryan Huddy's feed from the left circle at the goal post, cutting the gap to 4-2.
Tyler Mosienko then blistered a slapshot by Sexsmith from the mid slot with 6:59 left in regulation for his 15th goal of the season to cut the score to 4-3.
After pulling Sauer, Las Vegas crashed the net with a 6-on-5 skating advantage, but Sexsmith turned away separate rebound chances by Bernhardt and Mosienko to preserve the victory.
The Thunder now focuses to the first round of the Western Conference Quarterfinal on Tuesday, when they face Utah in a best-of-five series. The Thunder won the regular season series with a 7-3-1 record.
"We've had some success against them this season but I keep reminding myself, and others, of what they did in 07-08 by not winning a game in March and going onto the Conference Finals," said Thomas. "You throw records out window and those aren't applicable. What's applicable is what you do when the puck drops. We're looking forward to a good series."
Las Vegas, finishing fourth in the Western Conference, closed the season with a 38-29-5 record which included a 3-8-0 skid in the final 11 games. Sauer took the loss in net with 27 saves.
NOTES: The Thunder scratched Garet Hunt (two-game suspension), Fraser Clair (injured reserve), Chris Lawrence (injured, day-to-day), Johan Motin (injured, day-to-day), and Cameron Brodie (healthy) ... the Thunder were outshot by Las Vegas, 39-31 but killed off all four penalties ... Lawrence finished as the Thunder leader in goals (22) and points (54) ... the Thunder completed the season at a 2-4-1 clip against Las Vegas.
Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinal is Tuesday, Apr. 5 and the Thunder visits the Utah Grizzlies to begin the best-of-five series at Maverik Center at 6:05 p.m. The game can be heard on radio at 1280 KWSX and is available for viewing (pay-per-view video charge) at www.StocktonThunder.com, courtesy of AmericaOne.
A two-time recipient of the ECHL "Award of Excellence," Thunder was voted "Best Local Sports Team" by readers of the San Joaquin Magazine, led the ECHL in attendance for four consecutive seasons and drew over 200,000 fans for the sixth consecutive season in 2010-11. Season Tickets for 2011-12 are on sale now. For more information about tickets, merchandise, or other inquiries contact the Stockton Thunder offices at (209) 373-1500 or visit http://www.stocktonthunder.com/.
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ECHL Stories from April 3, 2011
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