STOCKTON — The largest crowd of this season’s Kelly Cup Playoffs witnessed the Stockton Thunder fight off elimination with two goals by Eric Hunter to post a 4-3 win over the Reading Royals in Game 4 of the Kelly Cup Finals in front of 6,202 fans at Stockton Arena on Friday.
Thunder has drawn to within a 3-1 series deficit, becoming the first team since the 2009 Alaska Aces to win when facing elimination in the Finals. They’re also 3-0 when facing elimination in the 2013 postseason.
Goaltender Tyler Bunz, who relieved Olivier Roy after the latter was forced to leave with an injury, earned the win with 25 saves. Reading’s Riley Gill stopped 30 shots in net.
“Bunz has been awesome this whole playoff run.” Thunder head coach Matt Thomas said, “He’s had to support Olivier the whole way, and for him to go in and do what he did, you just have to tip your hat to him. What a warrior and what a great teammate.”
“It wasn’t the way you want to go in, seeing your teammate go down like that.” Bunz said, “I’ve been chomping at the bit for a while now. I was kind of getting restless, just sitting here and watching those guys do their thing. For me to go there and play the way I did, I was a little bit nervous. The guys played a hell of a game in front of me. Our backs were against the wall, and with the way we played we really took the game away from them in the first.”
Forward Eric Hunter led the Thunder with two goals. Forwards Matt Reber and Shawn Weller joined Hunter on the scoreboard. Defenseman Ryan Constant, returning to the lineup for the first time since suffering an arm injury before Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, collected an assist on Hunter’s first goal.
Just 4:32 into the first period, the Thunder was as awarded a penalty shot when Reber was hooked on a one-on-one opportunity. Reber went for the backhand deke, but Gill was able to make the right pad save.
A battle on the boards by the Thunder net was won by Yannick Tifu, who found T.J. Syner in the slot. Syner easily poked it five hole to give Reading a 1-0 lead 7:54 into the opening frame.
At the 10:25 mark, Nikita Kashirsky collided with Roy during a rush to the net. Roy, who had made two saves at that point, lay on the ice for several minutes before being helped off the ice and replaced by Bunz.
On the ensuing power play, forward Harrison Reed swung the puck to defenseman Nathan Deck, who launched a shot from the point. Standing in front of the crease, Weller deflected the puck by Gill to tie the game 11:05 into the period.
Just 1:10 later, defenseman Shawn Boutin stole the puck near center ice and poked it ahead to Hunter for a breakaway. Hunter managed to beat Gill with a backhand deke to give the Thunder a 2-0 lead.
Forward Maxime Boisclair drove to the Reading net down the right side, sending a backhand shot at net that deflected off Gill to the front of the net. Boisclair and forward Andrew Clark battled for it at the net, with the puck eventually bouncing to the slot. Reber pounced on the rebound, putting the puck by Gill for a 3-1 Thunder lead 11:19 into the second period.
Kirk MacDonald’s bid from the right circle was stopped by Bunz, but the rebound went to the front of the net and an unmarked Joel Champagne, who hit it home to make it 3-2 6:01 into the third period.
The Thunder response came just 1:13 later in the form of a wrist shot from the point. Before the Royals could clear the zone, Hunter stepped in and took the puck away just before the blue line. Hunter let loose a snipe from the point that beat Gill glove side, making the count 4-2.
Ian O’Connor cut the lead to 4-3 at the 13:42 mark with a wrist shot that snuck by Bunz’s right pad.
With Reading having already pulled Gill, the Thunder was sent down to four men when Garet Hunt was called for interference with 49 seconds left. Nevertheless, the Thunder was able to stave off the Royals and live to fight another day.
“The guys rallied around him a bit, but he did a heck of a job coming in this situation.” said Thomas, “It’s hard to come in cold, especially when you haven’t played in a while. I think he’d only played for sixty minutes the whole playoff run. For him to get us a win, it’s huge.”