By Scott Linesburgh
The Stockton Record
STOCKTON, Calif. – The Stockton Thunder knows where it stands in the playoff picture.
Not that the players care.
The No. 4-seeded Thunder is confident it can beat the No. 1-seeded Ontario Reign and advance past the first round of the ECHL playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s four-season history. Stockton has been eliminated in the first round in each of the past two seasons.
The Thunder travels to play the Reign at 7 p.m. Friday in Ontario in the first game of their best-of-seven divisional series. The teams play again at 7 p.m. Saturday in Ontario. The series moves to Stockton for Game 3 Wednesday, Game 4 on April 17, and Game 5, if necessary, on April 19.
The Reign (38-29-6) won the National Conference’s Pacific Division, and the Thunder (32-33-7) was fourth.
“But you throw the records out now, and I think there are many reasons why we can win this series and go deep into the playoffs,” Thunder coach Matt Thomas said. “We have the talent, we’re well-balanced and we have the passion and character to do this.”
The Thunder has to win four times against Ontario to prove its coach is correct.
1. Matt Thomas is a proven playoff coach
Thomas has past playoff success. In 2006, Thomas and the Fresno Falcons reached the seventh game of the National Conference finals before losing in double-overtime at Alaska. He was an assistant at Atlantic City when it won the 2003 ECHL title.
2. The Genie can cast his spell
Thunder goalie Andrew “Genie” Perugini has more than a cool nickname. He can go on a tear, as proven by his nine-game win streak at one point this season. He’s a big reason why the Thunder could take the series.
3. Help has arrived
A playoff boost has come from Stockton’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Springfield Falcons. Defensemen Cleve Kinley and Robbie Bina, and forward Cory Urquhart have returned, and forward Igor Gongalsky is back from his assignment with the Ukrainian national team.
4. Straight shooter
Ryan Huddy is the best scorer in Thunder history with single-season records of 35 goals and 73 points.
5. Styles make the series
Ontario is conservative and disciplined. Stockton can be irritating with players who like to mix it up, such as Adam Huxley and Garet Hunt. They might throw the Reign off its game. Don’t expect a live version of “Slap Shot,” but the Thunder will be aggressive.