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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Mike Cazzola led the Komets in goals with 30 and points with 76 this season and was named team MVP. It was his first with the team after playing at Acadia University.

Friday, April 14, 2017 1:00 am

Komets' MVP has support, swagger

Cazzola an unknown when season began

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

It took the Komets awhile to learn to trust Mike Cazzola. And it took even longer for him to trust himself.

But now the confidence of the team in Cazzola, who led Fort Wayne in goals (30) and points (76) during the regular season, is surpassed only by his confidence in himself.

“Confidence, it's a huge part of the game. Everyone always says it. And right now I'm playing with a lot of confidence and I'm looking forward to the playoffs,” said Cazzola, whose Komets open their best-of-7 first-round series with the Quad City Mallards at 8 p.m. today at Memorial Coliseum.

Cazzola, who was selected MVP by his teammates, was plus-32 with a team-best six game-winning goals, and 10 goals and 21 points on power plays, all in just 67 games. He was 13th in the league in points, tied Toledo's Tylor Spink for the points lead among rookies, was three behind Toledo's Tyson Spink for the rookie goal-scoring lead and finished fourth in voting for Rookie of the Year behind the Spinks and Wheeling's Kevin Schulze.

Not bad for a player who, last season, had 16 goals and 30 points in 25 games for Acadia University and was relatively unknown to the Komets except for the recommendation of Shawn Szydlowski, who had been Fort Wayne's MVP the last two seasons.

“Early in the season, he was in and out of the lineup and had to earn the trust from (coach Gary Graham) and everybody else,” forward Mike Embach said. “He's super skilled, and we knew he was a playmaker right away. Now he's got 30 goals and that's sick for him. We've joked around that his first 10 goals or so didn't even hit the back of the net, so it's been unreal.”

As the Komets endured myriad injuries and call-ups this season, the 5-foot-7 Cazzola helped fill the void.

“He's really been the top center, consistently, the whole season,” Graham said. “He's honestly embraced the opportunity. You see a rookie come in like that and you don't know what to expect, but you give him the opportunity and he makes the most of it. For a smaller guy, he just competes like a demon.”

Cazzola, 26, was scoreless in three games this season with Binghamton of the higher-level American Hockey League.

“I didn't have these kinds of expectations coming into the year, but I wanted to try and be an impact player by just playing games and being a factor,” said Cazzola, a native of Guelph, Ontario, who had played alongside Szydlowski for the Ontario Hockey League's Erie Otters before a career at Acadia from 2012 to 2016.

“I wouldn't be where I am right now if it wasn't for the guys I've been playing with.”

The Komets (45-19-8) had the fourth-best record in the ECHL during the regular season and got the second seed in the Central Division, finishing eight points back of league-best Toledo.

Fort Wayne is 8-2-2 against Quad City (40-28-4) heading into the 2-3-2 formatted series that will continue with Saturday's 7:30 p.m. Game 2 at the Coliseum.

Asked where he has improved the most throughout this season, Cazzola said: “Obviously in confidence. I'm not afraid to hold on to the puck. Even if I make some mistakes, I know that Grammer has seen me play enough games now that he believes in me that I'll create offense. And you're not making that one mistake and not getting back out on the ice.”

Cazzola has six goals and 11 points in the last seven games, including a hat trick in April 7's 5-2 victory over Quad City and an assist in last Saturday's 6-1 victory over the Mallards that completed the regular season.

“He does the most with doing the least,” Embach said of the 175-pound Cazzola. “He's one of the most efficient players I've ever played with, in terms of strides and everything. You remember (the Komets') Scott Fleming? Same idea. It's stride management and he lets the puck do the work, and he's always in the right place at the right time.”

jcohn@jg.net