The Komets didn’t want to make anything easy for the ECHL-worst Iowa Heartlanders, especially when the puck was headed into the Fort Wayne zone Friday night.
So the Komets used their hulking defensemen to plug up the gaps. And the Komets did something else they hadn’t been doing well enough – shooting whenever they had opportunities at the other end – and it summed up a 4-0 Fort Wayne victory in front of 6,082 fans at Memorial Coliseum.
“We wanted to make it as difficult as possible for them to score goals, which means no free entries and that they’d have to go chip the puck and get it back,” Komets coach Ben Boudreau said. “When you have the size we have on the back end – 6-3, 6-4, 6-5 defensemen, just monster defensemen – that is a very tough thing to do for 60 minutes to take that abuse and retrieve pucks in the corners.”
Goaltender Jiri Patera had 23 saves for the Komets’ first shutout since Nov. 13, when Samuel Harvey stopped 39 against the Toledo Walleye, but Patera admitted his defensemen were the true heroes of the game.
“They were clearing all the rebounds and blocking all the shots,” Patera said. “I saw almost every single puck and most of the pucks weren’t on the net. The ones I didn’t see, they blocked. They were playing an amazing game in front of me.”
Blake Siebenaler had two goals – both coming in the third period – and Will Graber had one goal and two assists. Graber, has four goals and eight points in the last six games, all while playing forward instead of defense for the short-handed Komets (10-5-2), who came in on a 1-3-1 slide.
“I think we had been a little too easy to play against the last couple of games,” Patera said. “We had a few talks in the locker room to turn it around. Fortunately for us, it worked. We worked as a team and we got the win.”
The teams meet again 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Coliseum.
The expansion Heartlanders (4-11-3), who won the only previous meeting between the teams 5-1 on Nov. 21 at the Coliseum, played Friday with only 16 skaters – two short of a full lineup – because of injuries, call-ups and a three-game Cole Stallard suspension for a fracas against Wheeling (he’s eligible to return Saturday).
Fort Wayne finally had something resembling a normal ratio of forwards to defensemen – nine to seven – after they’d recently played with as many as nine defensemen because of injuries, call-ups and positive COVID-19 tests. The Komets had four players in quarantine – Connor Jones, Harvey, Shawn Boudrias and Chays Ruddy – along with assistant coach Olivier Legault and equipment manager Skylar Garver. Team officials said players Matthew Barnaby and D.J. King were ill but had tested negative for COVID-19.
Graber opened the scoring 1:04 into the first period by smacking the rebound of a Kellen Jones shot past goalie Trevin Kozlowski, who finished with 28 saves.
“(Graber), he’s a really good D and he skates very well, so he can play forward as well,” Patera said. “We’ve been using our D at forward a lot of times because we’ve been kind of short, but everyone is buying in and whoever is on forward or D, they’re trying to do the best they can to get the win.”
Kellen Jones almost made it a two-goal lead by steering around the defense and faking Kozlowski out of position, but the puck hit the post at 13:46.
Tyler Busch had a nifty assist 7:07 into the second period; backing into the corner he sent a pass to Connor Corcoran for a rocketing 35-foot shot and a 2-0 Fort Wayne lead.
One of Patera’s only gaffes came late in the second period, when he held on to the puck too long behind the net and almost gave an easy goal to Yuki Miura, who shot wide just as he was crushed by a check from Anthony Petruzzelli, who got a charging penalty for the play from referee John Lindner.
Patera (4-4-1), a Vegas Golden Knights prospect, was 0-3-1 in his previous four starts and hadn’t won since Nov. 12, when he defeated Cincinnati with 33 saves on 34 shots.
“I think the last one I got was in Cincinnati or Toledo, I can’t even remember,” Patera said. “So I’m happy more about the win than the shutout. I just want to keep on going and get the win tomorrow and carry it on.”
Siebenaler made it 3-0 with a shot from the blue line 7:25 into the third period. He scored again, from the left circle, at 13:05.
Boudreau said that defensemen Matt Murphy and Siebenaler have played with boosted confidence since they returned from time in the higher-level American Hockey League.
“We were missing them,” Boudreau said. “You can see a different element on our team when Murphy and Siebs are back in our lineup – we’re puck-moving, tape to tape, our offense is better – and we’re just a better team with those guys playing, especially Siebs.”
Notes: Stephen Harper, the Komets’ Playoff MVP last season, was reassigned to Fort Wayne by the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves. … Oliver Cooper returned to the lineup after missing 15 games. … The Komets released Marcus Ortiz, who was scoreless in two games for Fort Wayne. … Fort Wayne-native Luke Richardson was Iowa’s emergency backup goalie. … Laura Schmidlein will be become the first woman to officiate an ECHL game when she’s one of the linespeople Dec. 11 as the Worcester Railers host the Maine Mariners. … Shawn Szydlowski, recovering from back surgery, was on the bench helping coach Ben Boudreau. … The Komets were also without Matthew Boudens (in AHL), Drake Rymsha (AHL) and Josh Owings.