By Jason Anderson
The Stockton Record
STOCKTON, Calif. – Rookie goaltender Parker Van Buskirk rose to the occasion, his teammates rose to the challenge and 4,237 of the loudest fans in the league rose to their feet inside Stockton Arena.
The Stockton Thunder beat the Las Vegas Wranglers 5-1 on Thursday to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven ECHL Pacific Division finals. Every action-packed minute was worth cheering, but in an evenly matched series with an unusual format, Thunder coach Matt Thomas knows it won’t be as meaningful if his team can’t seize control with another win in Game 4 on Saturday night.
“This was a must-win game for us, but all it means is that Saturday night is even more of a must-win game,” Thomas said. “What gives us the best chance to win the series is going back to Las Vegas up 3-1. That makes these two games at home huge.”
Team president Dan Chapman agreed that Saturday’s game could be pivotal.
“We have to come out just as hard in Game 4, knowing if we win that one we’re in the driver’s seat with a 3-1 lead,” Chapman said. “That has to be the objective.”
Anything less could cost Stockton the series.
Instead of the standard 2-3-2 or 2-2-1-1-1 playoff series, the teams agreed to a 1-1-2-3 format because of scheduling conflicts at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. The Thunder gets to play three of the first four games at home – an uncommon perk for a team that lacks home-ice advantage – but each of the last three games will be played in Las Vegas.
“It adds a different element to the home-ice advantage,” Thunder right wing David Rohlfs said. “We’ve got the home-ice advantage in the first half of the series, so we’ve got to make sure we take care of it.”
The Wranglers, meanwhile, are confident they can win at least two of the final three games in Las Vegas.
“This really takes away our home-ice advantage, but that’s the way it is,” Las Vegas goaltender John DeCaro said. “We’re still going back to play three in our barn, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Thunder forward Craig Valette said the unorthodox playoff format changes the dynamic of the series.
“I think coming here for two games puts pressure on them to play well on the road and pressure on us to play well at home,” said Valette, who scored in the second period to give the Thunder a 2-0 lead. “We definitely want to try to solidify the series here before we go back to Las Vegas.”
Because winning in Las Vegas hasn’t been easy for Stockton. The Thunder went 0-3 at Orleans Arena during the regular season and lost Game 2 of this series there Monday.
The Thunder has reason to believe it can win a big game on the road after winning Game 7 of its opening-round series in Ontario, but there’s no reason to believe it can win two of three.
“If we can take care of business on our home ice and win both games, we could go down there and only have to win one,” Chapman said. “That would be a great position to be in.”