By Scott Linesburgh
The Stockton Record
The Thunder put its fans and itself through one more tense, stomach-turning finish before it finally made history in Game 7.
Stockton, the fourth seed, dominated the first period while building a three-goal lead and held off a furious attack by top-seeded Ontario in the final minute to win 5-4 on Wednesday and clinch the best-of-seven Pacific Division semifinals at Citizens Business Bank Arena.
It’s the first playoff series victory in the franchise’s four-year history, and Stockton won’t have much time to celebrate. The Las Vegas Wranglers defeated the Bakersfield Condors 5-1 in their Game 7 on Wednesday, and the Wranglers and Thunder meet 7:30 p.m. Friday at Stockton Arena in the first game of the best-of-seven divisional finals.
“This is a very big moment for us. We are a proud franchise that wants to build a winning tradition, and it’s important we went out and won our first series,” Thunder coach Matt Thomas said.
For the second night in a row, more than 200 Thunder supporters attended a “Watch Party” at Stockton Arena and the emotions ranged from jubilation to angst and finally to joy and relief.
“It was a little tough at the end, but we won the series and I think this makes this the best season so far,” said Adam Casper, a season-ticket holder from Tracy. “Hopefully we have a great series against Vegas.”
Wild finishes have been common in this series, with the Thunder almost overcoming a 4-0 deficit before losing 4-3 in Game 6. The Thunder led 4-1 going into the third period and 5-2 with 14 minutes, 24 seconds remaining in the game, but the Reign would turn a comfortable lead into a nail-biter one more time.
The Reign broke through when Brad Mehalko scored early in the third period to make it 4-2, but Craig Valette answered on a power play to give Stockton another three-goal edge. Tim Kraus scored with eight minutes left in the game for the Reign, and Geoff Walker followed with another goal for Ontario with 3:15 remaining to cut the lead to 5-4.
The Reign had one final flurry in the final minute, with Jon Francisco, P.J. Atherton and Bud Holloway among those getting close-range shots at Thunder goalie Parker Van Buskirk, who had 28 saves. Brad Mehalko was called for cross checking with less than 4 seconds left, and the Thunder killed the clock.
“We didn’t think we’d come in here and shut them out, we knew it would be a tight game,” Thunder forward Cory Urquhart said. “When it was 4-1, by no means did we think it was in the bag.”
Robbie Bina scored off an assist by Urquhart 8:32 into the first period to put the Thunder up 1-0. The Reign had a goal waved off on a penalty and then tied the game on a score by Andrew Martens before Stockton took control by scoring three times in four minutes.
Urquhart scored his team-high sixth goal of the series with 14:32 into the first, and Igor Gongalsky avoided a diving Ontario defenseman to score for Stockton. James Bates made it 4-1 in favor of the Thunder.