The quiet 230-mile bus ride from Elmira, New York back home to Harrington, Delaware in the early morning hours of last Sunday may not have been the most joyous one for Delaware Thunder Head Coach Charlie Pens, Sr. and members of his developing expansion team. But the players and their bench boss were undoubtedly thinking about the shortcomings of their sporadic play as well as the positives after falling to 1-5 early in their inaugural campaign in the Federal Prospects Hockey League.
Although they dropped 5-4 and 7-3 verdicts to the Enforcers on Friday and Saturday, respectively, the Thunder did show character in several stretches of play.
In fact, Delaware’s first professional hockey team proved itself resilient and competitive, rallying in one game and holding the lead for a stretch of time in the other. Hopefully, the team’s members are learning from their experiences as they work to reverse their fortunes during the still-early stages of their inaugural campaign in the FPHL.
“At this point, we have had ample time to evaluate our team,” said Pens, Sr. “We will be making changes now as we move forward. I am seeking players who want to battle and compete every night. If they don’t, they won’t be here long.”
The Thunder entered the weekend with high hopes as they prepared to take on their first Eastern Division foe. But things didn’t start well as Elmira opened a 4-0 lead through the first 40 minutes of play on Friday.
Then came a furious rally. Delaware exploded for three goals in the first eight minutes of period three as forward Brandon Contratto sandwiched a pair of goals (one of them shorthanded) around a power play red light by defenseman Daniel DiCristofaro, cutting Elmira’s lead to 4-3. After the Enforcers made it 5-3, Contratto completed a three-goal Hat Trick on the power play.
Delaware kept the pressure on Elmira during the final 2:44 of regulation but was unable to tally the equalizer. Goalie Aaron Taylor made 42 saves as both teams accumulated 47 shots on goal.
The third period featured plenty of chippy play and a worthy fight card. Delaware defenseman Charlie Pens, Jr. battled Enforcer forward Willie Daigneault, forwards Eric Masters and Yianni Skropolis of Elmira dropped the mitts, and Delaware blueliner Kieran Devine traded blows with Elmira defender Jordan Clarke.
On Saturday, the Thunder grabbed an early 1-0 lead on a goal by forward Weng To. Elmira tied it in the second stanza, and Delaware was feeling optimistic heading back onto the ice for period three knotted at 1-1.
But the Enforcers, who peppered 50 shots on goal against goalie Taylor and his backup, Morgan Hudson (one goal allowed and one save during the final 3:19), broke through for a 3-1 lead.
Delaware closed the gap to 3-2 when forward Evgeni Demin hit the back of the net. But Elmira erupted for four goals in less than five minutes during a third period onslaught that put the game out of reach.
Contratto, who tallied his fourth goal in two games at the 20:00 mark, has six for the season and is tied with teammate Ryan Marker for third place in the FPHL. Both players are also in a three-way tie atop the league with 14 points each, and are tied for fourth with eight assists apiece. Marker registered four assists for the weekend.
Marker and Contratto have accounted for 12 of the team’s 21 goals this season, and Coach Pens realizes he needs to bolster the scoring talent on the offensive attack. “We have to get faster up front and win the battles in the corners and along the boards,” he said.
Pens, who is also the team’s general manager and majority owner, would like to beef up the defensive corps, as well. “We are playing (Charles) Pens, Jr. and Alex Basey too much, and there is a priority (to add talent beyond those two),” said Pens, whose team ranks next-to-last with 31 goals allowed in the 10-team league. “I’ll tell you, Elmira was an eye opener (regarding where the Thunder needs to be for success to ensue).”
Delaware goalie Taylor made 43 saves in a heroic effort while surrendering six goals. The only bout of fisticuffs occurred in the third period when Basey tangled with Elmira forward Ahmed Mahfouz.
The Thunder is preparing for a home-and-home this weekend when they host the Mentor Ice Breakers Friday, then visit Mentor, Ohio on Saturday. The Ice Breakers are 5-1 and tied with Watertown for the Eastern Division lead.
Friday is Military Appreciation Night, with discounts available for active and retired military personnel. The Thunder will be wearing military game day jerseys, and the sweaters will be auctioned to fans who bid on the items. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the United Service Organizations (USO at www.usa.org). Tickets are available at www.delawarethunder.com/tickets, or by calling (302) 398-PUCK.