The Perth Thunder look to gain a valuable six points over the weekend against what is the league's most physical side at home in Perth.
The team has come off a tough road trip last weekend, splitting the games between the Sydney Bears and the city's crosstown counterparts the Ice Dogs.
The game on Saturday saw the Thunder earn a well needed win in what Bears coach Ron Kuprowsky described as a close game, despite the final score. "It was closer than the score was even though it was only a two goal game," Kuprowsky told AIHL reporters following the game. "It is just disappointing to work that hard and come away with nothing. I think defensively we played good until the third period and then we let down a little bit. They got three quick goals really quick and by the time we recovered it was too late."
For the Thunder, assistant coach Darin Bryce called it another gutsy win on the road. "It's been a battle for us all season," he said. "We get in the zone, we get enough shots, and we just aren't burying more. It was a good effort though. The guys are setting up and doing the good things and especially our local core group, they stepped up and made the right plays and really contributed"
One constant however this season, has been star import goaltender Thomas Heemskerk. He failed to disappoint in the first game, pulling off big saves and making sure Bears goalie Anthony Kimlin knew he was battling the best in the league down in the opposite crease.
After the match on Saturday , Bears Captain Michael Schlamp had plenty of praise for both Goaltenders, as the Australian national team representative managed to almost equal the saves of Heemskerk at the other end to keep his side in it long enough to at least get a couple late goals in the third to finalise the score at 4-2 following the end of regulation.
As the Thunder travelled across Sydney the following day with a win in their pockets, they struggled to prepare for a second physical matchup against the league's most gritty squad the following evening.
The Ice Dogs have perhaps a little too often heard their name compared to the likes of the Toronto Maple Leafs by fans and foes alike. The small team has a lot of heart and plenty of grit, but they have also had their fair share of struggles and breakdowns in their goaltending and defensive consistency in seasons gone by. However this year, with help from a couple handy imports and a veteran core group, as well as the addition of Perth native (and former Thunder goalie) Charlie Smart, the Ice Dogs have battled back into the competition after finishing last year's season with no regulation wins to their name.
With a gutsy performance at home, the squad snapped a nine-game losing streak on Sunday, defeating the Perth side 3-1 the following evening at the Liverpool Catholic Club Sports Complex in West Sydney.
The Sydney side scored three unanswered goals in the second period and the former Thunder representative stood on his head in between the opposing pipes in order to deny the Thunder from taking the momentum out of the game early on after they scored first on what was somewhat of a lacklustre powerplay on the night going only 1-9 (11%).
The Ice Dogs on the other hand, were eager to capitalise on every opportunity, and the hardworking, physical team made the Thunder feel unwelcome for most of the evening on the ice.
After a second period collapse saw the Thunder give up three crucial goals midway through the game, the team never managed to find their feet again in a gruelling third period which saw them fail to convert on six opportunities with the man advantage.
The Thunder coaching staff were somewhat unimpressed with the result, but gave the team credit for playing the right kind of hockey in both zones.
"I felt we dominated the first period," Bryce said. "We were certainly doing all the right things, but they had a goalie who was playing great and we got complacent in the second and third periods. "In the third, we got plenty of chances, but I think we were over thinking it and moving the puck to much, as opposed to just getting the pucks on net and looking for the rebounds," He concluded.
The Ice Dogs management however were more than happy with an important victory at this point in the season to keep the team motivated until the season ends in a few short weeks.
"The boys really played for themselves tonight," a smiling Vlad Rubes told Sydney reporters after the game. "To see all the people at the game tonight was really exciting, and to see everyone cheering at the end was great for our team. Tonight was a good defensive game and our goaltending was spot on. We survived lots of penalty kills and played with plenty of heart." He said
However, this weekend will give the Thunder the opportunity they were looking for, as the two teams head back over to Perth for a double header in what will be the second and third back to back games between these two teams. The tight schedule between these two teams will more than likely prove to raise the bar somewhat in the games to follow over the weekend as the Home squad will look to secure a couple much needed wins before heading down the final stretch into the Playoffs.
The Perth side sits only one win away from third spot which is closely contested between the Brave and the Northstars heading into the final few weeks. With the Ice in a comfortable lead atop the leagues scoreboard, the Perth Thunder will have to be more physical against what is a hungry Sydney team desperate to get off the bottom of the standings for the first time in two years.