The CHL learned Wednesday night what fans of hockey in Fort Wayne have known for years: Perhaps no team is better on the brink of elimination than the Komets.
With their season minutes away from ending, the Komets did what they always seem to do – they came back.
And they won, prolonging this season another couple of days … at least.
Forward Mathieu Curadeau's shot from 35 feet out, 10:53 into overtime, gave the Komets a 5-4 victory over the CHL-champion Rapid City Rush in Game 3 of the Turner Conference semifinals at Memoral Coliseum. The goal completed a comeback from three goals down with 9:08 remaining in regulation time.
"It was my first really, really good chance of the game," said Curadeau, who took a pass from Artem Podshendyalov on a power play, then beat goaltender Tim Boron, who stopped 41 of 46 shots.
"I think I created some chances for my teammates, made some good plays in the game, but for myself, it was the best shot I had in the whole series. I hadn't been making plays or getting to the net, and I need to do a better job of that."
The Rush leads the best-of-five series 2-1 with Game 4 coming Friday at the Coliseum.
So what is it about these Komets, winners of the last three IHL championships, who are now 7-0 in games they could have been eliminated dating back to 2008?
"This team just believes in itself," Curadeau said. "There was no, 'We're done.' It was like, 'This is not over.' It's been like that for four years. We don't want to die. We don't want to go home if there's still life."
The Komets successfully recovered from 3-1 deficits in best-of-seven series against Rockford in the UHL semifinals of 2005, against Port Huron in the IHL finals of 2008 and against Port Huron in the semifinals last season.
With the same nucleus still intact, the Komets were relaxed enough during the second intermission Wednesday – down 3-0 – that they were discussing the previous night's NHL game between San Jose and Los Angeles, which saw the Sharks come back from a 4-0 deficit to win in overtime.
"We were half joking about it and said, 'If we're going to go down, let's go down swinging,' " Komets captain Colin Chaulk said. "There's a reason this team has won seven straight playoff series and we showed it in the second half of the game."
Things started to turn in Fort Wayne's favor, and gave the 6,817 fans some energy, during a power play at 3:43 of the third period as forward Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock redirected a Frankie DeAngelis shot past Boron, who played instead of the injured Danny Battochio.
The Rush answered on a goal from right wing Andrew Smale at 7:08 for a 4-1 lead. But Komets defenseman Mike Ratchuk slithered through the slot and scored into an open net, with his team short-handed, at 10:52.
Podshendyalov got a penalty shot at 14:36, when he was pulled down by defenseman Gio Flamminio, but he missed his shot wide left. However, because Flamminio also took a cross-checking penalty, the Komets still got a power play from referee Boone Bruggman and got a goal from Schrock at 15:22 after a DeAngelis shot crept underneath Boron.
On another power play, Chaulk showed incredible patience behind the net before setting up left wing P.C. Drouin for a top-shelf shot at 16:30, tying it at 4.
"Yeah, he had great patience and I knew exactly what he was doing," Drouin said. "He was waiting for the defenseman to put his stick down and then he passed it right between his triangle. I was trying to place myself right there. I knew it was coming and I knew where I was going with the shot. I was hoping I would get a clean one and I did. It was perfect."
Curadeau and Drouin had been maligned by fans coming into the game, after they'd combined for one goal and one assist in the first two games of the series, 5-2 and 4-3 losses in South Dakota.
"Those guys haven't been good," Chaulk said. "A lot of guys haven't been good. This team hasn't been good, from the goaltending to the defense to the forwards. Matty and P.C. are no exceptions. They haven't been good. But they played great in the second half of the game. I'm not pulling any punches. I'm pretty honest. Sometimes it's hard to hear. But I've got to be better, too."
Fort Wayne scored on 4 of 8 power plays. Rapid City was 2 for 10.
The game began with plenty of drama.
Komets forward Sean O'Connor had been suspended three games by the league for his blindside hit of star Ryan Menei in a wildly physical Game 2, meaning Fort Wayne has to play a man short of a full lineup the remainder of the series. The Rush's Les Reaney, who skated 25 feet to crush O'Connor from behind later in that game, got nothing but a major penalty and a fine, irking the Komets and their fans.
Veteran Fort Wayne forward Derek Patrosso was scratched from the lineup in favor of Tom Mele, who had never played a professional game.
Meanwhile, Fort Wayne coach Al Sims opted to bench goaltender Nick Boucher in favor of Kevin Reiter, who stopped 27 of 31 shots. Boucher had backstopped Fort Wayne to its three IHL titles and has a 15-game winning streak at the Coliseum in the playoffs, but he had only 46 saves on 54 shots in the first two games of the series.
"It was really surprising, obviously, with Bouch and the way he's played in this building. He's been a formidable force out there," said the more mobile Reiter, who hadn't played since the second-to-last regular-season game, March 25. "I think Al wanted to change it up. It wasn't against Bouch's play in Rapid City, but they're a very opportunistic team and the shots don't really dictate the chances they get. If they get an opportunity, they've got guys who can score. When they get opportunities, they can bury the puck."
The Rush began the scoring on defenseman Dave Grimson's shot from the blue line at 11:02 of the first period. Chaulk was serving a holding penalty when Reiter failed to control the rebound on another Grimson shot from the point before right wing Konrad Reeder poked it into the net at 17:55.
The Komets were outshot 7-3 in the first period.
"The whole team, we hadn't had a bad period like that in years. It was awful," Drouin said. "We couldn't make a pass. We couldn't make a play. … The mood was a bit dire during the first intermission, but we've been through a lot this season and we don't give up. We keep going. Eventually something good is going to happen, and that's what eventually happened."
As two Komets broke their sticks, Reaney sent an easy pass through the crease to set up left wing Colt King's power-play goal at 5:33 of the second period for a 3-0 lead.
"It was a really emotional game," Curadeau said. "You don't want to go home and get swept. But it's only one game."
Tickets for Game 4 go on sale at 10 a.m. at the Coliseum.