FORT WAYNE – Komets fans had to be thinking the worst when rookie goaltender Matt Grogan, who had played so well in his professional debut, sped off the Memorial Coliseum ice after giving up a third-period goal Friday.
Unlike Wednesday, when it was an accelerated heartbeat and dizziness that sent goalie Ben Meisner sprawling to the Coliseum ice during a stoppage of play, muscle cramps were what felled Grogan.
Also unlike Wednesday, the Komets got a victory – 2-1 over the Gwinnett Gladiators – that pulled Fort Wayne into a tie with Florida for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 10 games remaining in the regular season.
Matt played really good, Fort Wayne coach Gary Graham said. These guys come from college and you race them in here. Some of these guys haven’t been on the ice for five, seven days or so. This morning was the first time he’d had shots in a while, and I thought he did a really good job to be honest with you. That one goal, he just couldn’t get down (because) he was just cramping up. Any athlete who has been in that position knows how difficult that is when you’re cramping and you’re just not hydrated.
The Komets (29-22-11) were without Meisner, who was checked out Thursday by a cardiologist and Friday by a neurologist and could re-enter the lineup when he feels up to it. Goalie Andrey Makarov had been called up to Rochester of the AHL on Monday.
So before facing the Gladiators (25-34-5), the Komets, who are trying to avoid missing the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1974 and 1975, signed Grogan and fellow rookie Kevin Murdock.
Grogan, 25, was 10-12-2 with a 2.47 goals-against average this season for the University of Connecticut. In 2012-13, he had the Atlantic Hockey Association’s top GAA (1.93) and save percentage (.937). Murdock, 23, was 7-10-9 with a 3.76 GAA for Lake Superior State this season, and he stopped all four shots he faced Friday in the last 11:37, after Gwinnett’s Will McDonald won a race for the puck and chipped a short-range shot past Grogan.
As soon as Grogan came out, I thought, it’s musical chairs for our goalies. That’s four goalies in two games, just ring-around-the-rosy, Komets captain Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock said.
But it takes a lot of courage to tell the coach he was cramping up. That’s hard to do as a youngster. But we’re glad he did it, and Murdock came up big.
To make room for the new netminders, the Komets released goalie Larkin Saalfrank, a native of Fort Wayne, who stopped 10 of 12 shots in relief of Meisner in Wednesday’s 5-4 loss to the Orlando Solar Bears.
But the Komets were boosted by the return of forwards Chris Auger, who is second among active ECHL players with 26 goals but missed the previous three games with a head injury, and Schrock, who had missed a game with an ankle injury.
The Komets opened the scoring 2:21 into the first period when forward Shawn Szydlowski’s shot from the right circle slipped between the legs of goalie Josh Unice, who stopped 32 shots.
Szydlowski had a chance to increase the lead in the second period, but he whiffed on his shot from 20 feet out, paving the way for forward Mike Embach to grab the puck and sweep it into an open net at 14:23 for a 2-0 lead in front of 6,844 fans.
Embach was acquired in a Dec. 12 trade with Gwinnett, along with Nathan Martine, for Bobby Hughes and Rob Kwiet. In 43 games with the Komets, Embach has 20 goals and 34 points, including six goals over the last four contests.