A successful road trip for the Perth Thunder has seen them clinch a place in the 2016 Australian Ice Hockey League finals series for the second consecutive season, with back-to-back 4-3 victories over the Newcastle North Stars and Sydney Bears ensuring they’ll be able to battle for the Goodall Cup again in 2016.
The Thunder entered the weekend knowing that five points would be enough to see them in the finals and the white-hot form of North American forwards Michael Dorr (2-4-6), Ben Breault (2-3-5) and Jessyko Bernard (2-2-4), as well as defenceman Rob Haselhurst (1-3-4) across the two games ensured the Thunder gained those five points.
Goaltender Thomas Heemskerk, for his part, was also stellar in net, stopping 60 of 66 shots in the two games to propel himself into first place in the league in save percentage (.924) and wins (17), whilst remaining third in goals against average (2.63).
The first game of the weekend was a battle for second place against the Newcastle North Stars in Newcastle, and the tight tussle was befitting of two teams fighting for their place in the finals, punctuated by more than a touch of late drama.
The aforementioned Bernard and Breault made sure the Thunder got off to the best start possible in the hostile building, powering the Thunder to a 2-0 lead before three minutes had expired on the game clock.
The Thunder held that lead until the halfway mark of the second period, when a Patrick Nadin power play goal saw the lead cut in half, and it would stay that way through to the second intermission.
Indeed the Thunder looked set to gain all three points in the game, before an equalizing goal was forthcoming from Josh Harris with just 2:38 remaining in the third period.
Bernard then looked to have surely banked the three points for the Thunder, netting his second of the game and 16th of the season with just 2:04 left on the clock.
The North Stars had memories from 12 months earlier of a Thunder equalizer in the final second (not seconds, second), and decided to repeat that dose on the Thunder, with Harris netting his second of the game with 0.01 on the clock to level the scores at 3-3 and force a shootout.
The two best goaltenders in the league, Thomas Heemskerk and Dayne Davis then proceeded to put on a show, stopping 11 consecutive shootout attempts before 2015 AIHL Rookie of the Year Kieren Webster netted his third shootout winner of the season to give the Thunder two points and a 4-3 win.
The Thunder remained in New South Wales for the first of three straight games against the Sydney Bears, knowing that no less than three points would do in the battle for a finals place.
The game was a tight defensive struggle through most of two periods, and it was the Bears who took a 1-0 lead late in the second period through Tomas Landa, with just 2.43 remaining in the period.
Breault scored the equalizer just 30 seconds later, with his team-leading 22nd goal of the season gaining the Thunder some much-needed momentum before the second intermission.
Defenceman Rob Haselhurst continued his top offensive form of late, scoring short-handed early in the third period to give the Thunder a 2-1 lead, his eighth point (2-6-8) in his past four games.
The Bears were able to tally on the same power play through Billy Cliff to restore parity at 2-2 five minutes in to the third, but two straight goals from Michael Dorr, including one on the power play, gave the Thunder a 4-2 lead with less than four minutes remaining.
The Bears stole a late power play goal through Tomas Landa, his second of the game, to give them a perfect night (2-for-2) on the power play, but the Thunder held on for a 4-3 win that ensured their place in the 2016 finals.
A crazy weekend of AIHL results, including 36 goals in two games on Saturday (Melbourne Ice 10 – CBR Brave 9; Sydney Ice Dogs 9 – Adelaide Adrenaline 8) has ensured that all four finalists are now locked away with two weeks still remaining in the season.
The finals will be played at O’Brien Group Arena in Melbourne on the weekend of August 27-28, with the winners of two sudden-death semi-finals on the Saturday playing off for the Goodall Cup in the Grand Final on the Sunday.
It’s the third time in the Thunder’s five seasons in the AIHL that the team has made the finals, and they’ll be hoping it’s the one that brings the Goodall Cup out west for the first time.