FORT WAYNE – I don’t think I know this hockey team. What are their names again?
OK, Mathieu Curadeau, that sounds familiar, but only because some luckless imposter kidnapped him and locked him in a trunk for the better part of the regular season, and now he’s out, and suddenly he has four goals and eight points in three playoff games.
And, yes, I know this Nick Boucher guy, too, especially the current version, Playoff Nick Boucher, who’s basically a cross between a Rottweiler and a Romulan force field in goal.
Colin Chaulk sounds familiar, if only for the glittering history he carries with him when things start to green up outside and, inside, the hockey becomes win-or-go-home. Tab Lardner’s name rings a bell. Frankie DeAngelis and Leo Thomas and Derek Patrosso and Kaleigh Schrock, and sure, it’s all starting to come back to me now, just as it’s suddenly come back to everyone here in the Fort Wayne Komets dressing room.
Where the music thumps again now, late Wednesday. Where they have waved so long to the Bloomington PrairieThunder. Where a team that took seven of 10 from the Komets during the regular season, including the last four, was summarily dismissed in three straight games.
First it was 5-2 in Bloomington and then it was 3-1 in Bloomington, and then, Wednesday, it was 6-3, Komets, in Memorial Coliseum. The home side scored four times in the third period, breaking up a 2-all game. Artem Podshenyalov, all 21 years of him, got the go-ahead goal on a breakaway not quite five minutes into the third.
Then he found DeAngelis with a surgical cross-ice pass, and it was 4-2. Then Schrock scored on a deflection. Then it was a lot of scuffling and scrounging and banging, beating the blue Bloomington jerseys to the puck, going into the corners, the sort of hard thankless work that wins for you in the playoffs.
“We’re right back to playing desperate hockey,” is how Komets coach Al Sims characterized it later, sounding immensely pleased by that development.
Over in the locker room, forward Sean O’Connor had that word and few others for it.
“I think we knew we had it in us, we just couldn’t find that killer instinct for whatever reason,” he says. “Now we’re in the playoffs, and our mentality is we’re looking to do anything we can to win the game.
“We just want to win the last game of the season. It’s just desperation.”
And, OK, it’s fair now to ask where that desperation was during the 5-15 start back in the fall, and why there were only brief glimpses all winter of the hockey team they’ve been for the last three games. Instead, they’d win a few, and then they’d lose a few. They’d win one and lose two or three. Eventually they’d finish four games above .500, but it was like climbing Everest without oxygen.
And then …
Well, then came the playoffs. And if conventional wisdom says nobody just throws a switch once the playoffs start, something’s surely different now.
Twice in three games it went to the third period, and the Komets won the third period both times. That was big. Boucher morphing into Playoff Boucher was even bigger. So was the penalty kill morphing into Jason Voorhees with a chain saw, limiting the PrairieThunder to one power-play goal.
So maybe they did just throw a switch. Or maybe it was just a playoff-savvy team finally getting back to its home ground.
“We just know how to play in the playoffs,” O’Connor says.
Ah. Now I know this team.