By Scott Linesburgh
The Stockton Record
STOCKTON, Calif. – The Thunder put on another display of consistent, hard-hitting hockey, and once again it led to a playoff victory.
If this is a trend, the team could be about to make its first trip to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
The Thunder played a near-flawless first period and goaltender Parker Van Buskirk came up with his second strong performance in a row as it beat the Ontario Reign 4-2 in a pivotal Game 5 at Stockton Arena. The Thunder leads the ECHL playoff series 3-2 and has two chances in Ontario wrap it up.
Game 6 is Tuesday, and if necessary, the teams will meet again Wednesday.
“We’re happy to get this win, and I think we are really understanding what we need to do this time of the season,” Thunder forward Cory Urquhart said. “We’re getting there. I can feel it.”
Stockton started the game strongly and avoided late mistakes. Van Buskirk was a surprise starter in the fourth game and won 5-4 in overtime despite the Reign scoring two shorthanded goals in the final two minutes of regulation to tie the score.
On Sunday, the Thunder again led 4-2 as Jon Francisco of Ontario was called for hooking with 2:05 left in the third.
“When I saw that happen, I thought it was funny and we started laughing on the bench,” Thunder coach Matt Thomas said.
There would not be a comeback this time. Stockton played conservatively and kept the puck away from the Reign, which got called for another penalty with 51 seconds left.
The team that has scored first has won each game in this series, and Urquhart gave the Thunder the edge 8:15 into the game when he took a nice pass from Igor Gongalsky and beat Ontario goaltender Jeff Zatkoff. Cleve Kinley increased the lead to 2-0 with a 40-foot slap shot on a power play, and the Thunder smothered Ontario’s attack and allowed just seven shots in the first period.
The Reign got going and attacked the Thunder net in the final 40 minutes, but Van Buskirk held up and had 30 saves.
Ontario scored on a long shot through traffic in the second period by Andrew Martens, and Francisco took advantage of a defensive breakdown in the third.
Ontario missed an excellent chance to score in the second when it had a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:12 after penalties on Judd Blackwater and Matt O’Dette. But Stockton killed the power play, and the fans cheered loudly when each of the players left the penalty box.
“I thought we did just about everything we wanted to except score on that play,” Ontario coach Karl Taylor said. “But they did a good job, competed hard and blocked shots.”
The Thunder built its lead to 4-1 at the end of the second on goals by Craig Valetta and James Bates, and then let Van Buskirk and the defense put Stockton one win from the second round.
“I think we’ve taken care of what we can take care of,” Thomas said. “It will be a tough task (on Tuesday), but it’s a challenge any team relishes.”