Unfinished Business

Winston-Salem, NC – Since May 14th, 2023, when the Carolina Thunderbirds saw a 2-0 lead in the Commissioner’s Cup Finals disappear and Danbury win the Commissioner’s Cup in overtime of Game Five, many parts of the Thunderbirds have changed, but the goal has been the same.

A new season meant a new head coach, new players joining a core of returning veterans, and a new look 2023-24 Carolina Thunderbirds. While some of the moves came as a shock to many, those within the locker room knew what they had. This was not a rebuild, it was a reload.

Carolina brought in a proven winner in the Federal Prospects Hockey League at the helm in Steve Harrison who had a fresh set of eyes on players and looked for the team he wanted and knew he could win with. From last year’s team, Harrison only brought back 10 skaters who played in that Game Five, with eight newcomers, many getting their first chance at professional hockey.

With the combination of youth and the veteran presence, the Thunderbirds got off to one of the best starts in franchise history, going 16-3-0 before Christmas. After the holiday’s though, Carolina hit a snag. With five players taking call-ups, the Thunderbirds went through their toughest stretch of the campaign throughout January, going 5-5-1.

Columbus kept winning, and the Thunderbirds knew that catching the River Dragons was out of the picture. Instead of panicking, Carolina focused on returning to playing Thunderbirds hockey.

February brought returning players and victories. Carolina went 7-2-0 across February, followed up by an impressive March going 9-1-2. Going into the final weekend of the regular season, Carolina and Columbus met three final times in the regular season. After a split in Winston-Salem across the first two games, on the final day of the regular season, the River Dragons embarrassed the Thunderbirds, handing Carolina its worst loss in franchise history, 11-1.

In that defeat though, Carolina was given a chip on its shoulder, one to spur them throughout the postseason.

In the Quarterfinals against Port Huron, the Thunderbirds fell in Game One in Port Huron, 3-2, pushing their backs against the wall. Carolina responded with a 4-2 victory in Game Two at home, and in Game Three, the two sides went to overtime with the winner seeing Columbus in the Continental Division Final. Just under eight minutes into overtime, Tucker Firth got Carolina where they wanted to be… with three games against the team that embarrassed them a week earlier.

Game One of the Continental Division Finals saw the Thunderbirds shutout for the first time in over four years, falling 3-0 to Columbus, going to Columbus. The River Dragons had not lost two games in-a-row at home since 2022. A tall task, but one that was not impossible for a team who had shown resilience all year long.

Game Two had the Thunderbirds on the brink of elimination late in regulation until Dawson Baker tied the game with 1:35 remaining, and in overtime, Jiri Pestuka forced Game Three setting up a deciding game for the second straight year against Columbus.

Game Three saw a classic. One overtime was not enough to decide a winner, and in the 2nd overtime, a pass from Baker to the FPHL Forward of the Year, Gus Ford, was the decider, eliminating the River Dragons, and sending Carolina back to the Commissioner’s Cup Finals for the second straight year and for the third time in franchise history.

So now after all the energy and emotion that has been spent on the first two series with both going to three games, it is in the past. The highs and lows of the regular season, the first two rounds, now don’t mean anything if Carolina can’t finish the job, with a best-of-five series against the Binghamton Black Bears to decide if the Thunderbirds can finish off the season and expel the demons from a season ago.

Game One of the Commissioner’s Cup Final is set for 7:30 p.m. on Friday evening at the Fairgrounds Arena with Game Two on Saturday at 7:35 p.m. Games three, four and five will be in Binghamton next weekend with games four and five if necessary. Tickets are still available for Game’s One and Two on Ticketmaster.com or at the Fairgrounds Arena Box Office. All games will be available on Thunderbirds TV and on WTOB.