The Komets squandered a two-goal lead and lost 5-4 Friday night to the Cincinnati Cyclones, in front of a crowd of 5,136 at Heritage Bank Center in Cincinnati, but the game was not without positives for the defending champions.
They were two men short of a full 18-player lineup, yet controlled the bulk of the action and outshot the Cyclones 32-21. They played a physical brand of hockey all night, the kind they’ll probably need when a home-and-home series opens Saturday at Memorial Coliseum with the division-leading Toledo Walleye.
Were it not for a few defensive lapses, some bad bounces, and even questionable officiating (see the post-whistle Cody Caron cross-check ignored by referee Casey Terreri in the third period, during a Cincinnati power play, and almost immediately followed by a cross-checking penalty on Fort Wayne’s Dillon Hill), and the outcome might have been more favorable for Fort Wayne.
“Any day of the week, whoever we have in the lineup, we have a lot of confidence we can get the job done,” said Fort Wayne’s Oliver Cooper, who scored along with teammates Matt Alvaro, Zach Pochiro and Shawn Boudrias. “I think the big thing for us to be successful is to be physical and to be aggressive. As long as we keep doing that, I truly believe we’re going to have a lot of success this year.”
The good news is that Tyler Busch is expected to return from COVID-19 on Saturday. The bad news is that the Komets (16-9-3) dropped to third place in the division and they might now be without Will Graber, who was assessed a game misconduct for physical abuse of officials after the game and could face a suspension from the ECHL.
The Komets played without Busch, Shawn Szydlowski (charley horse), Matthew Barnaby (ankle/head), Matt Murphy (flu), D.J. King (leg) and Josh Owings (upper body), to say nothing of the players called to the higher-level American Hockey League. That left them with only nine forwards, five defensemen and two goalies.
“Honestly, I thought as a team we played really well,” Cooper said. “It’s a tough loss and we may have deserved better. But that’s hockey. We’ll have to forget about that one, build off it and get ready for (Toledo).”
Both of Fort Wayne’s goalies were rookie newcomers: Mario Culina, who stopped 16 of 21 shots, and backup Liam Hughes. Culina, who was signed Friday, was 5-0-0 with a 2.20 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage for the Newfoundland Growlers in 2018-19, before he returned to college hockey for Brock University. This season for Brock, Culina was 5-2-0 with a 2.56 GAA and a .926 SP.
“I thought we played a very, very good game, Komets coach Ben Boudreau said. “I felt we controlled most of the opportunities in all three zones. We didn’t get the bounces and it was a tough debut for the kid (Culina).”
The Komets signed Culina and Hughes, who had been at the University of Manitoba, in the wake of releasing Bailey Brkin and Tommy Proudlock on Thursday after getting thumped 7-2 by Toledo the night before at the Coliseum.
If Hughes starts Saturday, he’ll be the eighth goalie used by the Komets this season in 28 games. That includes Samuel Harvey and Jiri Patera, who were squaring off in the higher-level American Hockey League on Friday for San Jose and Henderson, respectively; and Sean Bonar, who stopped 28 of 32 shots for second-place Cincinnati (18-11-1).
Cincinnati scored on 2 of 3 power plays. Fort Wayne was 1 for 5 with a short-handed goal.
The Komets got a 5-on-3 power play 11:24 into the first period, when captain Anthony Petruzzelli drew a hooking penalty on Graeme Brown and a cross-check on Dajon Mingo. Fort Wayne’s Stephen Harper took a hooking penalty 33 seconds later, but the Komets still got a 4-on-3 power-play goal from Alvaro, who redirected a Marcus McIvor shot.
Twenty seconds later, Cooper netted a short-handed goal from 12 feet out for a 2-0 lead.
The Komets didn’t allow a shot on goal until 13:48, when Patrick Polino had an attempt from the left circle. That was stopped by Culina, but Justin Vaive scored a power-play goal off the rebound. And Polino scored on a shot from between the circles, tying it at 2 at 1:15 of the second period, on Cincinnati’s fifth shot.
The Cyclones took advantage of lax defense at 5:18, when Jason Tackett feathered a pass through the defense to an unguarded Lincoln Griffin for a goal and a 3-2 lead, and Bonar preserved it with stops of Kellen Jones and Boudrias on shots from point-blank range.
Griffin scored again, to make it 4-2 at 17:37, after Gianluca Esteves stole the puck from Graber behind the Fort Wayne net. But Fort Wayne’s Pochiro answered 2:01 into the third period by batting the puck out of mid-air, as he fell to the ice, after Bonar had come way out of his net and tipped it toward the ceiling.
Cincinnati’s Mingo made it 5-3 with a goal during a 5-on-3 power play at 11:27, but Fort Wayne’s Boudrias scored from the right circle at 16:53.
“You know, we played hard and we threw the body and we blocked shots,” Boudreau said. “It's so taxing on these players to play these kinds of minutes, especially when you're short bodies. It’s tough when you have the momentum and they find a way to get one in. It just kind of takes the wind out of your sails, but we’re a resilient bunch and it shows that we never gave up.
"It's a long season. We're 28 games into a 72-game season. Sometimes you're going to get the bounces and sometimes you won't. Tonight, we didn't really get the bounces to go our way on the shots against."