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K's embrace playing short-handed

RAPID CITY, S.D. – While most teams dread having to play short-handed, in some strange way, the Komets embrace it.

This season, they've gone 4-0-1 in games they've played short of a full 18-man lineup from start to finish because players were suspended by the league.

That included Sunday's 6-2 victory over Dayton that clinched Fort Wayne the top seed in the Turner Conference playoffs, which begin tonight in Rapid City.

The Komets will be without defenseman Brent Henley for the first two games of the best-of-seven series against the Rush, which eliminated Fort Wayne from the playoffs last year. They must also play short of a full 18-player lineup because of the punishment.

"Playing short seems to help us simplify our game and get back to what we want to do, chip and chase," forward Chris Auger said.

Henley was suspended three games for sucker-punching Damien Surma and then kneeing and, allegedly, spitting on Brett Lutes, who had cross-checked Henley in a game Saturday.

It would seem a huge loss for the Komets, since Henley was co-winner of the team's award for best defenseman with Frankie DeAngelis, was selected as the CHL's top defensive defenseman in a poll of players, coaches and staff members and probably logs more ice time than any of his teammates.

But the Komets are accustomed to playing without a full complement of players, particularly defensemen. Earlier in this season, goaltender Nick Boucher was suspended four games and defenseman Bryant Molle for three for their part in a brawl with Bloomington on Feb. 17.

"I don't know if it hurts us," Auger said. "But obviously, if you talk to some of the guys going through it (and logging more ice time), they're tired."

The Komets' Achille's heel this season has been their propensity for turning the puck over in the their own zone after making passes that were too fancy. When they play short-handed, though, they amp up their defensive intensity and let the offense come to them.

"Everything was played safe and allowed us to take the (games) over," Auger said of the games last weekend, after Henley was out. "It helps us simplify our game and that was one of the keys for us going forward."

Rapid City, however, knows plenty about playing short-handed. The Rush lost over 300 man games to injury in the regular season and believes it is better than its 38-22-6 record, including losses in 4 of 5 games against Fort Wayne, suggests.

"Playing (short-handed) was a huge test of our character and we simplified our game more than we usually do," Fort Wayne goaltender Nick Boucher said after last weekend. "I didn't have to make a lot of saves and the guys played stellar in front of me."

Justin A. Cohn, pro sports coordinator for The Journal Gazette, has been covering the Fort Wayne Komets since 1997. His reporting includes game stories from home and away, features about the players and personalities associated with the Komets, plus coverage of issues affecting hockey at all levels. A native of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Cohn graduated from Emory University in Atlanta. He can be reached at 260-461-8429 or by email at jcohn@jg.net.

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