In an inaugural season of firsts, the Borderland Thunder have unwillingly welcomed their first slump.
As they get ready to host the Iron Range Yellow Jackets this Friday and Saturday night at the Memorial Sports Centre, the Thunder are mired in a five-game winless streak—and have won only two games in their last 10.
Their latest trip to Thunder Bay last weekend ended with 8-7 and 5-4 losses to the KC Bulldogs, dropping them to third place (7-6-4) in the Superior International Junior Hockey League standings.
The Thunder had started the season with just one loss in their first seven games. But centre Matt Johnson said no one is hitting the panic button as they prepare for the Yellow Jackets.
“Basically, I think we have to step back and think about what we’ve accomplished beforehand. I try to get back to what we were doing,” said Johnson. “Hopefully, we’ll start doing it.”
Thunder head coach Wayne Strachan said turning things around all begins with improving team defence.
“I definitely think our defensive zone, as a team, needs a lot of work. They do it well in practice but seem a little loss during the games,” he admitted.
The Thunder also have had their share of players getting bit by the injury bug. Kyle Prystupa and Tyler Barker, both of whom have been out for the past three weeks, are still two to three weeks from a return while forward Ryan Hilfer also has missed games due to a rib injury.
But the team’s newest additions have showed positive signs. Adam McTavish and Kris Esselink are two more names from the OFSAA ‘A/AA’ gold medal-winning Muskie squad the coaching staff has brought up to make up for injuries.
Each scored their first goals in Thunder Bay.
The Thunder also have brought aboard International Falls product Chad Baldwin. The right-winger played in the America West League in Fairbanks, Alaska last season.
Strachan admitted the team is still tinkering with its roster before Dec. 10—when each SIJHL squad should have only 25 skaters carded under its name.
But a player with the size of Esselink, who Thunder management had coveted before he chose to play with the Muskie football program in September, will help shore up their blueline.
“Obviously, he has size and he’s a very smart defenceman,” noted Strachan. “He knows where to be and when to be there. When he gets in playing shape, he can be a scoring threat for us.”
Offensively, the Thunder are comparable with any SIJHL team. Centre Kevin Webb is tied with the Hawks’ Brent Greene in the league’s points race with 25 (17 goals, eight assists) while Johnson isn’t far behind with 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists).
Johnson’s linemate, Justin Bodnarchuk, has cracked the league’s top 10 with 18 points (six goals, 12 assists).
“It’s really great playing with Justin. With Kyle’s injury, we’ve had different linemates,” said Johnson. “[McTavish] worked with us this past weekend and he’s doing really well.”
Another concern is goaltending. While Jason Flatt, Tom Iwaniec, and Chris Cain have given the Thunder solid minutes so far this season, Strachan said they still haven’t chosen that number-one goalie to start most of the games.
“We need to have one of our goalies perform on a consistent basis,” he said.
Their weekend games against the Yellow Jackets will be no walk in the park. Despite looking ordinary in SIJHL play (3-4-1)—and having the dubious distinction of being the first victim of the lowly Thunder Bay Wolves (a 4-3 loss Friday, which was swiftly avenged with a 16-4 stomping the next night), the defending Minnesota Junior Hockey League champions are among the top teams in that league with an 11-1-1 mark.
“In our league, [the Jackets] have had an up-and-down season so far,” said Strachan, whose team last played them in September’s pre-season tournament in Thunder Bay—doubling them 6-3 in the final.
“They’re not a typical U.S. team. They’re a big, older team. They play more of a Canadian style,” he noted.
Meanwhile, Johnson said he and his teammates have no problems putting extra pressure on themselves to shake out of their slump this weekend.
“It’s definitely pressure for a two-win weekend for sure. I think all the guys know that,” he stressed.
The puck drops at 7:30 p.m. for both games at the “Ice for Kids” Arena. Tickets cost $7 for adults and $5 for seniors/students.