The Perth Thunder are in the best place they’ve ever been in their quest for their first Goodall Cup.
The team has broken numerous records in the season, individuals have broken numerous records in the season, they have home-ice advantage (well, last change) in the sudden-death semi-final, and have lost just one of their past eight games: Sunday’s dead rubber against Melbourne Ice when the team MVP, Thomas Heemskerk, was put on ice for the night.
They head across the country, some 3000km’s, to Melbourne’s O’Brien Group Arena for the AIHL Finals; three sudden-death games in two days where the last team standing takes the ultimate prize, hockey’s third-oldest trophy, the Goodall Cup.
According to Thunder alternate captain Andrew Cox, they head there with supreme confidence as well.
"We’re pretty happy with where we’re sitting and the competition we’re playing against as well," Cox said.
"We’re going over there (to Melbourne) to win. If we don’t win we’ll be extremely disappointed."
They’re strong words from the alternate captain, but he’s got every reason to be bullish; The Thunder are currently riding a wave of terrific form, turning their season around after suffering a mid-year slump that threatened to de-rail the 2016 campaign.
They’ve been led throughout by goaltender Thomas Heemskerk, the Chilliwack, BC native, who posted an AIHL-record .927 save percentage on the season in his 20 wins, conceding more than four goals in a game on just one occasion in 2016 (a 7-6 Thunder win over CBR when the Brave scored 5 PPG’s), and posting two shutouts.
Close behind him in the MVP race would be Ben Breault, who broke a Thunder record this season posting 52 points (26-26-52), while Michael Dorr (20-31-51) had a stellar second half of the season and Jessyko Bernard (17-27-44) scored in all but two games played this season.
Each of those four have made a tangible contribution that can be backed by all the statistics and data we want, but there is zero doubt the Thunder have been a much, much better team since the return of captain Sam Wilson.
Wilson hadn’t missed a game in Thunder history before breaking his arm back in May, but even though his record says he has five points (0-5-5) in 14 games, his return can’t be undersold, with the team posting a 11-2-1 record with Wilson in the line-up, a point not lost on Cox.
"He’s our backbone, the captain and our leader," Cox said. "He brings a presence to the dressing room, and it doesn’t matter if he plays five minutes or 50, he’s one of the guys that brings a lot to the team."
The team the Thunder come up against in the semi-final are the reigning champion Newcastle North Stars, a team boasting the top scorer in the AIHL, Connor McLaughlin (35-26-61), as well as a rock-solid defence, labelled by Ben Breault as the best in the league, that have matched the Thunder stride-for-stride this season.
Each of the four games between the two teams has been a battle, with two ending in shootouts and the other two being one-goal games, and the Thunder have the recent momentum, scoring a victory in the shootout in the last meeting on August 6.
Should they win Saturday, the Thunder has good records, great in fact, against their potential Grand Final opponents, Melbourne Ice and CBR Brave, losing just once to each of those two teams.
There’s a reason Cox is confident, and while some hockey players give the cagey, we’re not there yet, one-game-at-a-time sermon when asked about their hopes of winning the Cup, Cox took a different route.
"That (winning the cup) is the only thing I’m thinking about at the moment and through this week, it’s something you think about all the time, wanting to win that cup."
"It’s why we play; it’s the ultimate of sporting moments for hockey in Australia so it’s what we want to do."
Here’s hoping they can.