A game that began with a bit of controversy – if you can call starting the IHL’s Goaltender of the Year controversial – ended with a solid 4-2 victory for the Komets in the opening game of the best-of-seven IHL semifinals against the Port Huron Icehawks.
The big question coming in was whether Fort Wayne coach Al Sims would go with Tim Haun, who won the league’s top netminding honor, or Nick Boucher, who backstopped the Komets to the last two Turner Cups.
Conventional wisdom suggested Sims would go with the more proven Boucher, but instead he went with Haun, who went on to stop 25 shots for the victory.
But he got plenty of help from the Fort Wayne offense, particularly forward Sean O’Connor, who scored twice in the third period for the second-seeded Komets.
While playoff series often open with a tentative atmosphere with the teams feeling each other out, this one had back-and-forth intensity from the start, even if the Memorial Coliseum attendance was announced at only 5,412.
Port Huron goaltender Larry Sterling, who lost to the Komets in the triple-overtime Game 7 Cup-clinching game of 2008, had to be spectacular early. He foiled breakaway attempts by Justin Chwedoruk and Leo Thomas.
However, Sterling was also aided by the Komets’ ineptitude on the power play, which finished the regular season in a slump. During a 5-on-3 advantage that lasted 1:29 in the first period, the Komets failed to muster a shot. They were 0 for 3 in the opening period with only one shot.
The lone goal of the first period was scored by Fort Wayne, though, with right wing Matt Syroczynski’s slapshot from the top of the left circle beating Sterling on the far side.
As the Komets’ offensive luck continued to falter – center Colin Chaulk hit the post during a 2-on-1 rush – the Icehawks evened the score at 6:43 of the second period. During an Icehawks power play, forward Brandon Naurato bested Haun with a wrist shot from the right circle. Haun responded by high-sticking Derek Patrosso a split-second after the goal light went on. That’s the same Patrosso who was victimized by a midseason baseball swing to his head from Haun, who received a seven-game suspension from the IHL.
The Komets went back up at 13:08 on a goal from center Justin Hodgman, the 2008 playoff MVP, who spent half this season in the higher-level American Hockey League with Toronto. He split two defenders, then bested Sterling with a backhand shot that slipped just inside the left goal post for a 2-1 lead.
Things continued to get nastier and nastier.
Late in the period, Port Huron defenseman Kevin Hansen checked Haun after a whistle, though Haun seemed to embellish it by sprawling to the ice, and that set off the third melee of the night. By the end of the second period, referee Scott Hoberg had given out seven misconducts.
O’Connor gave the Komets a 3-1 lead at 1:53 of the third period. He got to a rebound and skated behind the net, making like he was going to do a wraparound. Then he put on the brakes and Sterling skated by him. O’Connor turned around and tucked the puck inside the near post for the goal.
But the Icehawks answered at 5:21, with defenseman Daniel Tetrault scoring from just inside the blue line, after a faceoff.
The teams meet again at McMorran Arena in Michigan on Saturday night.
Sterling finished with 31 saves.
Notes: The Komets played without defenseman Keith Rodger.