The Journal Gazette
Saturday, October 23, 2021 1:00 am

New-look champs return to ice

Komets to raise Kelly Cup banner before 70th opener

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

When the Komets departed the Memorial Coliseum ice July 2, they had the Kelly Cup in tow. When they return tonight, for the opening game of their 70th season, only Anthony Petruzzelli, Matthew Boudens, Stephen Harper, Marcus McIvor and Oliver Cooper will be back from that championship crew.

Last season isn't totally out of the picture though – tonight's pregame festivities will include raising of the championship banner, presentation of rings, longtime star Shawn Szydlowski on hand to do color commentary for the WOWO broadcast, probably some other surprises – but the defense of the Cup will start in earnest with an almost entirely new roster of players.

They've never had a game together, since the preseason schedule was scrapped due to two positive tests for COVID-19. Some of the players haven't played a meaningful game in over 18 months because of the pandemic. And some are expected to be replaced in the coming weeks as players trickle down from the American Hockey League.

“Not having preseason games, it's going to be a lot of guys' first games in a while, so we could be a bit sloppy at times,” said Harper, who was named Playoff MVP after the Komets ousted the South Carolina Stingrays for the Cup. “But we're going to have that crowd behind us and that feeling is going to be pretty cool. I'm not too worried and we'll be fine.”

The Komets tonight will face the Wheeling Nailers, the league-worst team they met a whopping 20 times out of 50 games last season – the Komets (29-16-5) were 13-4-3 in the series – and nitpickers of Fort Wayne's championship like to point to that, the abbreviated season, that only 14 ECHL teams participated, and that the Komets had players like Brandon Hawkins and Justin Vaive from teams that had opted out.

The Komets would love to quiet those who talk of asterisks, by winning another championship as 27 teams are competing. But it will be particularly difficult after so much offseason turnover, including the retirement of A.J. Jenks, Szydlowski getting back surgery, Anthony Nellis wanting to play in Quebec or the loss to Europe of Alan Lyszczarczyk, even if defenseman Blake Siebenaler is expected to soon return from Henderson of the AHL and defenseman Matt Murphy could arrive from Belleville.

“It's great when you have a full team of returning guys. They know the way you play, the way that you coach, and there's jelling,” coach Ben Boudreau said. “When you have the opposite, you have a team almost completely compiled of new guys, there's tons of teaching.

“And the expectations – the way we play, the way we coach, the way we set up, the way we train – you've got to coach completely different guys, who have come from completely different systems and organizations, and get them all on the same page for opening day.”

But Boudreau has called the improvement during training camp “incredible” and the team expects big things this season from marquee acquisitions such as forwards Drake Rymsha, Connor Jones, Kellen Jones and Shawn Boudrias; defensemen Zach Tolkinen, Will Graber and Jameson Milam; and goalies Samuel Harvey and Jiri Patera.

The truest strength of the Komets' roster is expected to be in net – with Patera, a Vegas Golden Knights prospect; Harvey, who won a Memorial Cup in juniors and spent last season in the AHL; and Stefanos Lekkas, who finished last season as the Buffalo Sabres' backup – and the defensive corps is taller than usual. But the reality is there are a lot of unknowns and the team will search for identity beginning tonight when about 7,800 fans are expected.

“The experience of the first game for so many guys – you've got the Cup in there, you've got the banner, you've got jewelry – these kinds of games only come around so often that it's something you look forward to,” Boudreau said. “For us, during the playoffs last season, we talked about enjoying the moment and going through it with the battle and compete, and this year is no different. We have an opportunity (today) in front of a (big crowd), it's going to be an incredible experience and my message is just to enjoy the moment.”

Komets vs. Wheeling Nailers

When: 7:30 p.m. today

Where: Memorial Coliseum

Radio: 1190 AM, 107.5 FM

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