Mar 232004
 
Authors: Justin Goldman

A stellar regular season that had the Colorado Eagles clinch the

Northeast Division title of the Central Hockey League and post an

expansion-record .711 winning percentage is on the brink of

extinction. Playing at the Budweiser Events Center, where the team

finished with a division-best home record of 25-5-2, the Eagles

dropped the first two games of their best-of-five opening-round

playoff series against Wichita Thunder 2-3 and 3-4, respectively.

Penalty killing was the major factor in the two losses as five

power play goals for the Thunder helped them swipe both games from

under the Eagles’ claws.

“We’ve got to be better on our penalty kill,” said Eagles coach

Chris Stewart after Game 1. “Obviously specialty teams is what beat

us tonight and that’s what makes the difference.”

Despite having a 2-1 lead after two periods during Friday

night’s playoff opener, the Eagles allowed Thunder forward Jason

Duda to score a pair of power-play goals in the third, lifting

Wichita to a 3-2 come-from-behind victory. Eagles forward Brad

Patterson scored two goals as well but it was not enough as the

power plays stacked up in Wichita’s favor.

“I think overall there were a lot of penalties,” Stewart said.

“I wasn’t happy with the number of penalties that were in the game

and I thought it was excessive for both sides, not just us.”

Wichita goaltender Nathan Grobins, once coached by Stewart in

San Antonio, was instrumental in stealing Game 1 from the Eagles by

making 36 saves. Eagles’ goalie Ryan Bach was stellar as well-but

not as busy-making 22 saves.

“I thought goaltending was great at both ends,” Stewart said.

“There’s absolutely no reason that we lost because of the

goaltending, that’s for sure.”

Game 2 took place 24 hours later on Saturday night as an

electrifying and loud Bud Barn crowd labeled this game a

“must-win.”

Colorado wingers Mike McGhan and all-star Greg Pankewicz each

netted a power-play goal to give the Eagles a commanding 2-0 lead

in the second period.

Pankewicz followed his first goal of the playoffs by scoring

again on a one-timer blast that found its way past Grobins.

The period ended with a major shift in momentum, however. Up

3-0, Eagles defenseman Igor Bondarevs got called for holding at

16:49 in the second, setting up another Thunder power play. Travis

Clayton converted with the extra man by taking a nice feed from

Jason Duda and flipping one over Bach’s outstretched glove with

only 1:40 left in the period.

That goal was enough of a crowd-killer to allow the Thunder to

slowly work their way back into the game. The third period was

filled with more penalties that killed the pace of the Eagles.

Clayton scored his second power-play goal of the game at the 7:33

mark to tie the game at three. The building that players and

coaches named the third toughest arena to win in fell dead silent.

The result was an unassisted goal with only seven minutes remaining

by Thunder defenseman Les Hrapchuk, his third game-winner of the

year.

“Penalty problems allowed them to score five times in the

series,” said Eagles center Riley Nelson. “For our game it’s just

too many penalties and it’s obvious we need to focus on our penalty

killing.”

Grobins held the 4-3 lead by making 33 saves and only 10 in the

third.

“Anytime you come into their barn and steal a pair of games,

it’s huge and we came in here and played as tough as we could,”

Grobins said.

Although the Eagles outplayed the Thunder for more than 40

minutes, the final frame was the deciding factor in the 4-3

loss.

“I think there’s some bad calls and some definite errors,” said

Stewart after Game 2. “I thought the third period was marred with

penalties.”

No matter how bad it looks on paper, Stewart is confident that

the Eagles can come out of the semifinal round victorious. Games 3

and 4 take place on Friday and Saturday night in Wichita, Kan. The

Eagles will have to win both games in order to force a deciding

fifth game, which would take place on March 29 in Loveland.

“It’s not one game, it’s three games. We’ve got to win all three

games, that’s all there is to it. That’s the bottom line,” Stewart

said. “I’ve personally done it-I believe. It’s just making sure

everyone in (the locker room) believes.”

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