Everything hinges for the Komets right now on being able to make the most of home-ice advantage.
After splitting the first two games of their best-of-5 series with the Wichita Thunder in Kansas, the Komets must win two of three games at Memorial Coliseum, starting at 8 p.m. today, to advance to the ECHL's Western Conference finals for the third time.
Historically, the Komets have thrived at the Coliseum in the playoffs, where they have a 190-93-1 record – yes, there was a tie in the International Hockey League during a 1961 round-robin series with Muskegon and Toledo – and the Komets have won 22 of 34 games at “The Jungle” since joining the ECHL in 2012.
Of the Komets' nine playoff championships – seven in the two iterations of the IHL, one in the United Hockey League and one in the Central Hockey League – all but the 1973 Turner Cup were captured on Coliseum ice.
“I think it's huge,” Komets captain A.J. Jenks said of having Games 3, 4 and, if needed, 5 at the Coliseum. “We love playing on home ice. We have the best fans in the league. And we know we're going to be bringing it for the playoffs.”
Capacity at the Coliseum has been upped to about 5,000 for the playoffs after COVID-19 safety restrictions were relaxed, but there are likely to be available seats this round – a product of short notice; the lack of season-ticket holder packages during the pandemic; the Coliseum and Ticketmaster not putting “if necessary” games up for sale; and warm weather competing with a postseason six weeks later than usual.
Still, it'll be a return to normalcy for the Komets, who have played eight road games in three states since their last game at the Coliseum, a 3-1 loss to the Thunder on May 23. The Komets' last two games – a 3-2 victory Tuesday and 5-2 loss Wednesday – were played at the Thunder's practice facility, the Wichita Ice Center, because INTRUST Bank Arena was booked with Disney on Ice. Among the novelties at the practice arena were glass that is shorter than regulation in some spots – the Komets got three delay-of-game penalties from those spots – and a wider-than-usual Olympic-size sheet of ice.
“Familiarity helps,” Fort Wayne coach Ben Boudreau said. “We had 10 Friday night games this season and we went 10-0 on home ice, so we're hoping to come out and get back to playing our game.”
The Komets have led only 25 seconds of game time in this series, after Anthony Nellis scored the decisive Game 1 goal, and goaltender Dylan Ferguson has stopped 91.8% of the 73 shots he's faced. Wichita's Evan Buitenhuis has stopped 92.1% of the 63 shots that have come his way.
“We're just looking to play 60 full minutes, play our game, play to our potential. We think that if we do that, we're going to be in good shape,” said Jenks, whose team is the third seed in the conference but has home-ice advantage because of the second-seeded Thunder's lack of available ice.
Wichita was the ECHL's best team on the road during the regular season, going 22-10-4, and Fort Wayne was fourth best at home at 16-8-0, both .667 winning percentages.
The Thunder has a 28-40 all-time record in road playoff games.
Under Boudreau, the Komets are 33-17-4 at the Coliseum, and this will be his first home playoff game. The Thunder is 29-31-9 on the road with Bruce Ramsay at the helm. This is Ramsay's fourth playoff series coaching against the Komets, with three different teams, and he is 0-8 at the Coliseum.
Notes: The Florida Everblades' Jake Hildebrand was selected ECHL Goaltender of the Year by coaches, broadcasters, media-relations directors and reporters. Buitenhuis was second, followed by Wichita's Evan Weninger. ... The expansion franchise in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, unveiled its nickname: the Lions. The logo is a lion's face in the shape of a fleur-de-lis.
Komets vs Wichita
Western Conference Semifinals
Game 1: Komets 3, Wichita 2
Game 2: Wichita 5, Komets 2
Game 3: 8 p.m. today, at Memorial Coliseum
Game 4: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, at Memorial Coliseum
Game 5: 7:30 p.m. Monday, at Memorial Coliseum*