Ford sets goal record, Thunderbirds defeat Thunder to clinch playoff spot

 Harrington, DE – With a 6-3 win over the Delaware Thunder, the Carolina Thunderbirds clinched their fourth playoff spot in franchise history. Since joining the league in 2017-2018, the Thunderbirds have clinched a spot in the Commissioner’s Cup Playoffs every season the trophy has been awarded.

Making his return from suspension, Garrett Rutledge emphasized his team’s need to find the net early in games. Center Dawson Baker followed his coach’s instructions to the letter, stepping around a Delaware defenseman for a short breakaway and beating Trevor Babin low to the stick side for the game’s first goal. It would stand as the only tally in the first period, despite Carolina outshooting Delaware 18-9.

The Thunder found their own scoring stride in the second period. Dan Cangelosi slammed home a rebound from a sharp angle to tie the game at 1-1. Minutes later, Charlie Bedard found the back of the net to give Delaware the surprise 2-1 lead midway through the period. Just nine seconds after the goal, the Thunderbirds battled right back. Dawson Baker flipped the puck up to himself several times on his way to the net before knocking it back to Jacob Schnapp. The Florida native then pounded home his 11th of the season to tie the game once again. Carolina smelled blood in the water and continued the attack. Tory McLean rifled a shot past the glove of Babin just moments later to re-claim the lead. Then, with Jiri Pestuka in the box for holding, the Thunderbirds struck shorthanded. Tommy Cardinal and John Buttitta’s gamble paid off on a 2-on-1, with the Carolina captain burying his 23rd of the season for the 4-2 lead. Carolina continued its loose play on that penalty kill, being bailed out on a 3-on-0 by their goaltender Chris Paulin just moments after the goal.

A strange sequence of events closed an entertaining second period. After his deflection hit the side of the net, Ryan Marker went behind the net and attempted a forehand wraparound. Jacob Schnapp dove to the far goalpost to meet Marker, knocking the puck loose before it glanced off the leg of Paulin and into the slot. The officials blew the play dead and indicated a goal, sending a puzzled Carolina squad to the dressing room with their lead cut to one goal.

Gus Ford entered the contest with 13 points in nine games against the Thunder so far this season. He also sat at 28 goals on the season, one behind the franchise record of 29, set by Jan Salak in 2019-20. In typical Ford fashion, he made his entrance to the score sheet at a crucial time. Picking up a crisp pass from Jiri Pestuka at the blue line, Ford shifted his way around the defensemen and fired home his 29th past the blocker of Babin. Just 16 seconds later, Ford made history when he found a John Buttitta backhand pass in the high slot. His snapshot found the upper right corner, gave Carolina the 6-3 lead, and made him the first 30-goal-scorer in current Thunderbirds history.

Carolina clinched a playoff spot with the 6-3 victory, their sixth against the Thunder this season. The second contest of their three-game set is scheduled for 7:00pm on Saturday night. L