By Scott Linesburgh
The Stockton Record
STOCKTON, Calif. – The bus carrying the Thunder was greeted at Stockton Arena by a small but enthusiastic crowd that wanted to see the team one last time.
For the fans and players, the longest season in franchise history ended too soon.
The team was eliminated from the playoffs Wednesday night when it lost 5-1 to the Las Vegas Wranglers in the seventh and deciding game of the ECHL Pacific Division finals. While the Wranglers prepare for a trip to Anchorage to meet the Alaska Aces in the National Conference finals, the Thunder returned to Stockton on Thursday and started preparing for the offseason.
Before the players depart and discussions about next season begin, the Thunder came to terms with the final loss of the season.
“I really felt this team came together, especially in the playoffs, and it’s disappointing that it’s over because we accomplished a lot,” Thunder forward Craig Valette said. “We do have a lot to be proud of. But we thought we could do more.”
About a dozen supporters waited near the back lot of the arena for the team to arrive and broke into applause when the bus pulled up.
“We didn’t want them to come home and no one was here,” said Elaine Ugarkovich, who is the secretary Stockton Thunder Booster Club. “This is our chance to give them a final show of support.”
The Thunder advanced past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s four seasons, beating the Ontario Reign.
Stockton turned back the Wranglers first attempt to clinch the divisional finals with an inspired performance in Game 6 for a 3-1 win, but fell behind early in the final game.
Thunder coach Matt Thomas said two of the main reasons the Thunder lost the series was its performance on the power play and inconsistency. Stockton did not score on any of its last 20 power plays against Las Vegas.
“Those things obviously hurt us a lot. But that said, I thought those were two very good series, and Las Vegas outscored us in the last game.” Thomas said. “We advanced out of the first round and put ourselves in position to make it to the conference finals. There’s a lot to be proud of.”
Stockton will now deal with the important offseason issues as the franchise negotiates with Thomas and has discussions with the Edmonton Oilers about remaining its NHL affiliate. There was no talk Thursday about which players would comeback, and it will be a while before fans learn whether free agents such as forwards Mike Lalonde and Valette, defenseman Matt O’Dette and goaltender Parker Van Buskirk will return.
The Thunder just wishes it could have put off those questions as long as possible.
“In a few days we’ll probably think about what we accomplished and what a great ride it was” said Van Buskirk, who joined the team during the playoffs and became the starter.
“But right now, it still stings.”