By Bob Highfill
The Stockton Record
STOCKTON, Calif. – Thunder coach Matt Thomas made a change last week that might have been second-guessed all offseason had it not worked.
But it has.
Thomas smiled at the notion he’s a genius, but there’s no question Stockton has played with a higher level of intensity since he changed goalies after Game 3 of the ECHL Pacific Division semifinals with Ontario. That’s not to say Bryan Pitton was the sole reason behind the Thunder falling behind 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. But the move, gutsy to say the least, has had the desired effect.
After Sunday’s 4-2 win over the Reign, the team’s second in a row, the Thunder has a 3-2 lead in the series and needs one more win to advance to the division finals for the first time in the franchise’s four-year history. The series moves to Ontario for Game 6 on Tuesday, with Game 7 on Wednesday if necessary.
“Our guys will play hard for whoever’s in the net,” said Thomas, who replaced Chris Cichocki on Dec. 29. “The reality is we weren’t playing well in front of (Pitton).”
The Thunder has played brilliantly, for the most part, in front of 21-year-old Parker Van Buskirk, who was signed last week out of a Canadian junior league when starter Andrew Perugini injured his leg in the first game of the series. Pitton finished Game 1, a 4-3 loss, and started the second, in which Stockton built a four-goal lead and won, 6-5. In Game 3, the Thunder did little right with Pitton minding the net in a 5-1 loss at home, which prompted Thomas to make a change.
“The guys needed to believe in each other as a group,” Thomas said. “And sometimes you can rally behind something.”
That something is someone in this case: Van Buskirk, who wouldn’t have been available to play for Stockton had his Kitchener Rangers made the Ontario (Canada) Hockey League playoffs. Not only has he played well, stopping 59 of 65 shots, he has provided a much-needed spark.
“For a young man, he’s doing a good job under difficult circumstances,” Ontario coach Karl Taylor said. “The best thing he’s done is solidify the net and give his team some life.”
Thomas has said in the past he doesn’t like to change the lineup when the team wins, meaning Van Buskirk might start Tuesday, though Perugini isn’t using crutches any more. Whether he plays again or not, Van Buskirk won’t soon forget his experience with the Thunder.
“The whole team has been awesome, and one of my biggest supporters has been Pitton, which says a lot about him,” said Van Buskirk, who had a 3.33 goals-against average in 53 games with Kitchener this season. “I really respect him as a friend and goalie.”
Just as Pitton doesn’t deserve all of the blame for the Thunder falling behind in the series, Van Buskirk doesn’t warrant all of the credit for Stockton gaining the advantage.
“Parker was good, but we were a good team both nights,” Thomas said. “We were good in both zones.”
The Thunder has the momentum in the series – something its new goalie has helped create.