NORTH AMERICAN HOCKEY LEAGUE: Veteran Jackalopes shine in season finale

What might have been will weigh heavily on the minds of the Odessa Jackalopes players for the next few days.

By virtue of their 6-2 victory Saturday night against the Amarillo Bulls, the Jackalopes will finish four points behind Wichita Falls for the final playoff spot in the North American Hockey League’s South Division.

Four points. Two victories. Four more overtime losses.

Additionally, Odessa (26-25-6-3) finished the season above .500 for the first time since joining the junior ranks for the 2011-12 season.

“It’s bittersweet,” Jackalopes coach Greg Gatto said. “We finish with the best record since the first year in juniors and we are watching the playoffs.

“But that’s hockey and you have to come to play each night. But I thought it was a great performance tonight, especially for our 20-year olds in their last game for us.”

Of the six Odessa goals, the first five were scored by 20-year olds, including a pair by Chase Thudium. Ryan MacKellar, Tyler Pietrowski and Zach Zech were the other age outs finding the back of the net, with teammate Peyton Frantti capping the scoring with less than six minutes to go.

Thudium had an assist to go with his two goals, giving him 69 points on the season to tie him with Amarillo’s George Mika for the league’s scoring lead.

From Sylvan Lake, Alberta, Thudium played just one season in the Permian Basin and it made an impact on him as he gets ready to embark on a collegiate career, either in the United States or Canada.

“It was a last-minute decision to come down here and play and it was the best decision I’ve made,” Thudium said. “I’ll never forget my teammates or this organization for the opportunity they gave me.

“I’m going to miss the players, the coaching staff, the fans. It was a great year for me.”

Zech capped a three-year run with the Jackalopes, finding the net with 3:47 play after skating down the slot, eluding a pair of Amarillo defenders, and then sliding the puck between the pads of goaltender Nikita Babintsev.

Making his final junior goal that much sweeter — brother Cooper, along with Thudium, got the helper on the play.

“I’m sure my dad was going crazy back home on that one,” an emotional Zach Zech said afterward. “My grandfather too, probably; they all watch the games on the internet.

“It’s been an amazing three years and I’ll always have a place in my heart for Odessa and this organization. I’m going to bigger things in college, but I’ll never forget my time here with the Jackalopes.”

Nor will MacKellar, the team’s captain, who missed 16 games with injuries this season.

Taking a pass from Pietrowski at the Bulls’ blue line, MacKellar took two strides and then unleashed a wrist shot that Babintsev never saw until it snapped the twine inside the right post at the 13:07 mark of the second period, tying the game 2-2.

“It was great to get a goal in my final game here,” MacKellar said. “We worked so hard this year and tonight was a great way to finish the season.”