Defense had been the focal point for the Komets coming into Friday night. And the defense was improved, as Fort Wayne defeated the Wheeling Nailers 2-1 in front of an announced crowd of 2,419 at Memorial Coliseum.
“I was pleased from the start of the game, right till the end,” Fort Wayne coach Ben Boudreau said. “Even going back to Thursday’s practice habits, I thought we were committed to our craft, knowing we’d laid an egg (in a 4-3 loss to Wheeling) on Wednesday.”
Stephen Harper had the winning goal, 7:45 into the second period, depositing the rebound of a Randy Gazzola shot into the net.
Gazzola had two assists.
In his return to the lineup, Fort Wayne goaltender Dylan Ferguson stopped 24 of 25 shots, including a bevy of saves in the waning minutes.
“That was a great team win,” Harper said. “You’ve got to give Fergie credit. During the week, after giving up four or five goals in our last couple games, we were harping on our defense and I’m proud of the effort tonight in the defensive zone.”
Said Boudreau: “I’ll tip my cap to Dylan; when we needed him, he was there. That’s all you can ask of him. You can’t ask him to have a shutout every single game. But when we needed him to make a save and be able to count on him, he was there. I think that’s really important, not only for our team to have confidence in him, but for him to have confidence in himself.”
It was the last of 20 games between Fort Wayne (25-12-4) and league-worst Wheeling (19-31-6). The Komets, who would have dropped to third place in the conference had they lost, went 13-4-3 in the season series with the Nailers.
The Komets hadn’t had such a low-scoring game since they defeated Indy 2-1 in overtime April 11.
“For sure, we hadn’t had a game like that in awhile,” Harper said. “I think it’s good for us, especially with playoff hockey right around the corner. The games are going to get tighter, so this was a good one for us.”
Ferguson had sat out the previous 12 games because of a hand injury suffered stopping a shot in practice. He didn’t face a shot during the first 7:54 Friday. But he had maybe the biggest save of the first period, foiling Brendan Harris from 12 feet out at 9:12.
Ferguson was bested by Tim Doherty’s 40-foot shot at 14:21, after Fort Wayne turned the puck over in its own zone.
Wheeling goalie Taran Kozun stopped all 18 shots he faced in the first period (Fort Wayne had five), and Kozun’s best stop came on a 10-foot Anthony Petruzzelli shot off a rebound.
Kozun was caught out of position, giving Fort Wayne’s Justin Vaive a look at an open net early in the second period, but Vaive waited too long, switched to his backhand and missed the net. Off the ensuing faceoff, though, Fort Wayne’s Anthony Nellis redirected a Marco Roy pass past Kozun to tie it at 1 at 4:03.
Kozun finished with 35 saves.
“(Defense) was definitely something we were preaching,” Boudreau said. “It was committing to defense, committing to details, after we’d been letting in goals from the point and letting in goals from the front of our net. That was really an area of focus tonight and they really found it tough to score against us when they did have opportunities, because guys were laying out and sacrificing and blocking shots – the intangible things you need to do in order to win games.”
The Nailers were without Austin Fyten, who has a team-leading 23 goals in 39 games, because he was suspended three games Friday by the ECHL for his knee-on-knee hit of Petruzzelli with less than two seconds remaining in Wednesday’s game. The ECHL also suspended Chad Duchesne seven games for trying to hit a fan with his stick, after the fan had thrown something at the Wheeling bench following Fyten’s hit.
Notes: The Komets expect forward Brandon Hawkins to return from Rochester of the American Hockey League on Monday. … Goalie Stefanos Lekkas won’t be returning. He had signed a one-year NHL prorated contract to be the Buffalo Sabres’ backup goalie to Michael Houser, but since it came after the NHL trade deadline he cannot be loaned back to Fort Wayne, even though he's a rookie. ... The Komets still have goalies Ferguson, Robbie Beydoun and Trevor Gorsuch. … Fort Wayne was 0 for 2 on power plays. Wheeling was 0 for 4. … The referee was Nolan Bloyer. … The Komets played without Shawn Szydlowski (back), Olivier Galipeau, Oliver Cooper and Gorsuch. … Wheeling had a whopping 15 scratches – 13 injured players and the two suspended – and its players have missed a total of 284 games this season. … The Komets have a rare Saturday off before playing host to the Indy Fuel at 5 p.m. Sunday. … The Komets believe capacity for playoff games at the Coliseum will be about 5,080.