'It would be difficult to look at the Komets' season thus far as anything other than a success.
They are 16-7-4, with the third-best winning percentage in the ECHL, despite obstacles that made this maybe the most unpredictable of the team's 69 seasons: The players had barely skated in almost a year because of the pandemic; coach Ben Boudreau and general manager David Franke lost standouts like Brady Shaw and Brett McKenzie as the offseason dragged on; the other 13 teams began play two months before Fort Wayne; and protecting the players from COVID-19 has been a challenge.
Two games past the midway point of their 50-game regular season, the Komets are in second place in the Western Conference with a .667 winning percentage, but nothing is guaranteed – all seven teams battling for four playoff spots are .500 or better.
Let's look at what makes the Komets championship contenders, their points of concern and some other areas of interest.
The good news
Special teams have driven the Komets. The power play ranks first at 28.2% and has accounted for 34.4% of Fort Wayne's 90 goals. The penalty kill ranks fourth at 86.8%. The Komets have also scored five short-handed goals and allowed three. Brandon Hawkins already ranks second in the league with eight power-play goals
Defensively, the Komets have been vastly improved, ranking third with 2.67 goals against per game, after they ranked 20th with 3.55 last season. The defensemen have done a better job of not getting caught up ice, though Olivier Galipeau, Randy Gazzola and Blake Siebenaler are still able to provide a lot of offense, and Nick Boka and Mathieu Brodeur have been welcome additions. The forwards deserve credit, too, for being more responsible in transition.
Offensively, the Komets rank third with 3.33 goals per game, and the contributions of newcomers Hawkins (15 goals, 25 points) and Zach Pochiro (11 goals, 21 points), who is out this week with a hand injury, have been particularly noteworthy. The depth is impressive; there have been nights when Anthony Nellis and Stephen Harper have been as valuable as Anthony Petruzzelli or A.J. Jenks.
Off the ice, the Komets are believed to be the only ECHL team yet to quarantine players. Nothing would throw a wrench more in their season than losing players to COVID-19 protocols.
With all the good things the Komets have done, it's not surprising that they haven't felt the need to alter their roster much.
“We've only had one (non-goalie) signing during the season, which was (Oliver) Cooper, so you can tell the confidence is there in the players and we've got the right mix,” Boudreau said. “If I had to say there's any one area that we need to get better, it's finishing off our opportunities because we create a ton of them. But usually we find it's frustrating because we put them right in the breadbasket of the goaltender. We're playing the right way the majority of nights. We're generating our opportunities. If we start to develop that finish, we shouldn't be in such tight games anymore.”
Boudreau's point is a valid one – the Komets rank third in shots per game (33.2) and allow the fewest shots (23.1) – but sometimes they try to generate too much offense from the perimeter or make one too many passes.
“The big key for us is to bury our chances,” Galipeau said. “I mean, we're getting 30 shots every night and getting only one to three goals, so we've got to bury our chances, especially 5 on 5. We're buzzing in the offensive zone, but we just can't finish off with goals.”
But there are other points of concern. Taking bad penalties is one. The Komets are averaging 16.6 penalty minutes, second most in the league, and 5.1 minor penalties – about the same rate as last season.
Starting games or periods poorly remains a problem, and the goaltending hasn't always helped.
Stefanos Lekkas (7-2-2, 2.15 goals-against average, .914 save percentage) has been the most reliable, though he's currently with Rochester of the American Hockey League. Dylan Ferguson (4-1-0, 2.06 GAA, .895 SP and 1 shutout) has improved over last season but has again battled injuries. Louis-Philip Guindon (5-2-1, 2.84 GAA, .871 SP, 1 SO) has been hit or miss. Jeremy Helvig was a disaster. Seven times, the netminders have allowed goals on the first shot they faced.
Most within the organization expected a huge season from Shawn Szydlowski. He has two goals and 17 points in 22 games, and there are concerns. He's only fifth on the roster in scoring and a team-worst minus-7. It's important to remember, Szydlowski, 30, is usually a slow starter. The best thing might be to adjust expectations; if he's a second- or even third-line forward at this stage of his career, he's a very, very good one.
The same holds true for Justin Vaive, 31, who has seven goals and 10 points in 27 games. He and Jenks have been wreaking havoc in front of the net lately and that's been needed.
The trade deadline is Thursday. The Komets seem unlikely to do much, but they certainly have the pieces if they want to be bold.
The Komets have played all but four of their games against Indy and Wheeling and the remaining schedule will be only slightly more diversified with one game against Florida, three against Wichita and three against Utah. The Komets need to show they can consistently beat unfamiliar foes because that's what they'd see in the postseason.
Komets vs. Wheeling
When: 8 p.m. today
Where: Memorial Coliseum
When: 7:05 p.m. Saturday
Where: Indiana Farmers Coliseum, Indianapolis
When: 4:10 p.m. Sunday
Where: WesBanco Arena, Wheeling, West Virginia
Radio: 1190 AM. 107.5 FM