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The Journal Gazette

  • Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette Komets goaltender Pat Nagle, who is expected to start Game 1, stops a shot against the Quad City Mallards. The Komets also have the highly capable Garrett Bartus as a goalie. 

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Quad City captain Chris Francis was a productive player with the Komets for a short time.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Both the Komets and Quad City Mallards have their share of toughness, as evidenced by Saturday’s fight between Fort Wayne’s Shawn Szydlowski and Quad City’s Dylan Labbe at Memorial Coliseum.

  • Justin A. Cohn | The Journal Gazette Komets defenseman Dan Milan, left, and the Quad City Mallards’ Nolan LaPorte battle for the puck along the boards.

Friday, April 14, 2017 1:00 am

10 THINGS TO WATCH

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

The Komets haven't faced the Quad City Mallards in the playoffs since 2003, when Fort Wayne won the Colonial Cup with a 4-1 series victory cemented by Dustin Virag's overtime goal at Memorial Coliseum. While the stakes aren't quite as high, the first-round series that begins tonight at Memorial Coliseum series promises to be a good one.

Here are 10 things you should be excited about:

Exciting rookies: The Komets have Mike Cazzola, who tied for the ECHL rookie lead with 79 points, including 30 goals. Quad City's Michael Parks accrued 29 goals and 56 points. Mallards goaltender Adam Vay could be a factor, after he went 20-17-2 with three shutouts and a .900 save percentage in the regular season. Fort Wayne defenseman Ryan Lowney has been a late-season surprise. 

Unique coaches: It's tough not to root at least a little bit for Fort Wayne's coach, Gary Graham, and Quad City coach Phil Axtell. Graham had to work his tail off, and ignore doubters, because he didn't have a playing career beyond juniors. Axtell, who started off as a volunteer coach, too, took over mid-season for Terry Ruskowski, who played in the NHL and won two championships as a coach. Alcohol cost Axtell his career – and almost his life with a car accident – but those problems seem to be in the past.

Rivalry renewed: It would be great if this once-heated rivalry were rekindled. The teams met a whopping 12 times during the regular season – Fort Wayne won eight games – but it's nothing like the heated United and International Hockey League days. The Mallards ousted the Komets from the 2000 and 2001 playoffs before the Komets exacted revenge in the 2003 finals.

Toughness abound: Well documented are the Komets' tough guys, namely Cody Sol and Taylor Crunk, though Shawn Szydlowski, Mason Baptista, Garrett Thompson and Curtis Leonard like to hit and drop the gloves, too. The Mallards also like to play a physical brand of hockey. Keep an eye on Jack Nevins, who racked up 122 penalty minutes, still 40 fewer than Sol.

Balanced scoring: Both teams have a multitude of weapons. Fort Wayne's Cazzola, Kyle Thomas, Szydlowski, Travis Ewanyk, Gabriel Desjardins, Thompson and Brett Perlini all had 20 or more goals. The Mallards' snipers are Parks, Sam Warning, Justin Kovacs, Josh MacDonald and Chris Francis, all also with at least 20 goals. The goalies best beware.

Nifty netminders: Speaking of the goalies, this series has two of the ECHL's best tandems. Fort Wayne has two legitimate No. 1s in Pat Nagle and Garrett Bartus. Quad City's C.J. Motte is more consistent, but Vay has the only three shutouts. Look for Nagle vs. Motte tonight.

Facing old teams: Quad City's captain, Francis, had four goals and 17 points in 32 games before defecting from the Komets in 2010-11. The Komets have a few former Mallards; Follmer played for Quad City last season and one game this season.

Injuries woes: The Komets finally seemed healthy before losing Kyle Follmer, Will Weber and Bobby Shea down the stretch. Weber could return tonight and Follmer in Game 3, while Shea looks to be out for this series. The Mallards' injured list includes Alex Petan, Brady Brassart and Grant Arnold, who all could be back tonight, though Adam Gilmour is less likely.

Passionate fans: Fort Wayne fans are passionate and travel well. The K's lead the ECHL with 7,568 fans per home game. The Mallards average 3,928 fans, but the atmosphere isn't like it was in the old days, when the Duck Blind section was deafening. The arenas are separated by 306 miles.

NHL prospects: The Komets are the only ECHL team not affiliated with an NHL franchise, but that doesn't mean they haven't been pilfered by higher levels like everyone else. Players who have spent time this season in the American Hockey League include Trevor Cheek, Cazzola, Szydlowski, Thomas, Shea and Bartus. The Mallards have Minnesota Wild prospects Brassart, Vay, Gilmour, Dylan Labbe, Guillaume Gelinas and Pavel Jenys. Chase Lang and Alex Gudbranson are in the AHL but could return.

jcohn@jg.net