Halfway through their 70th regular season, the Komets look like a contender to repeat as Kelly Cup champions. Tumultuous as the last 36 games have been – with the call-ups, injuries, illnesses, ever-changing lineup and just plain bad luck – the Komets are 19-13-4, in second place in the ECHL's most formidable division and have gone 3-3-2 against rival Toledo, which leads the league.
But the path forward is challenging. Matthew Boudens, Drake Rymsha, Samuel Harvey, Jiri Patera, Blake Siebenaler, Marcus McIvor and Matt Murphy remain in the higher-level American Hockey League and one can't assume any will be back during this pandemic-impacted season.
The Komets constructed their roster a certain way and will continue to reinvent themselves – in both personnel and systems – despite slim pickings among possible reinforcements. And the remaining schedule is unforgiving.
Here's a look at what the Komets need to do to enhance their chances of winning another Kelly Cup.
1. Solidify the goaltending: If the Komets use Zachary Bouthillier this weekend at Worcester, Massachusetts, he'll be the ninth goalie they've used. The team desperately needs at least one goalie it can trust implicitly. Mario Culina was looking like that guy, but giving up two goals on tough-angle shots in the final 26 seconds of Sunday's 6-5 loss to Toledo has cast some doubt on that. Coach Ben Boudreau has found some very good rookie goalies in his tenure – like Harvey, Stefanos Lekkas, Robbie Beydoun and Louis-Philip Guindon – so we've got to trust the process and hope the chatter that Patera could return soon is true.
2. Keep battling: The most fun aspect of the season has been the Komets' ability to rally when it seemed unlikely. The 5-4 overtime victory over the Cincinnati Cyclones on Dec. 27 – a game the Komets trailed 4-1 – epitomized that. The Komets are accustomed to skating short-handed, with players out of position, and it's made them a gritty team not unlike last season.
3. But don't let down: Giving up goals on the first and second shots against has been a thing for 12 months. Squandering leads through some mental lapses, such as what happened Sunday or by taking bad penalties, can't happen either. It's easier said than done, but the Komets have to be ready at the start and play the full 60 minutes.
4. Light the lamps: The Komets offense has been trending in the right direction with 14 goals in the last three games, but they still rank 11th with 3.28 goals per game for the season. They've got the talent for a top-5 offense – adding Zach Pochiro certainly helped – but they need to stick to the simple things: Get the puck into the corners, use the forecheck and create traffic. This team gets into trouble when it gets too fancy.
5. Improve on special teams: It's been a product of changing personnel, but the Komets' power play ranks 21st at 17.6%, though it's looked much better lately, and the penalty kill is sixth at 84.1%. Getting those uncharacteristic numbers up is key.
6. Stay out of the box: The Komets haven't done a bad job here – they average 13.94 penalty minutes, 15th lowest of 27 teams – but the timing of some infractions have been brutal. (Toledo averages 9.85 penalty minutes, least in the ECHL.) Fans may clamor for more toughness, but this isn't the season to get carried away.
7. Find more help: The deadline for players to return from overseas is Feb. 15. That gives the Komets a chance to identify some game-changers – maybe Alan Lyszczarczyk returns? – and they'll surely find help from the college and junior ranks. With every team hurt by call-ups, though, it'll take good recruiting and big money.
8. Embrace the culture: The importance of leadership can't be overstated. So it's amazing the Komets have continued to succeed despite some key changes. Boudens was the captain. Anthony Petruzzelli is now. Siebenaler and McIvor were alternates. Connor Jones and Kellen Jones are now. If the call-ups return, it's unclear who would wear what letters. It may not matter, since it seems there's a good core of leaders in the locker room.
9. Get better on road: The Komets have done well at Memorial Coliseum, going 13-5-2, and they're 6-8-2 on the road. Twenty of the remaining 36 games are on the road, though, and that's not easy, especially with so little leeway in the Central Division. Good starts are imperative; the Komets are 1-4-0 when trailing at the first intermission on the road, 0-7-1 when trailing at the second intermission.
10. Mask up: Last season, the Komets didn't have any positive COVID-19 tests. This season, they've had at least 10 players and three staff members test positive. It's not fair compare the two seasons – safety protocols have changed, vaccines became available, and the virus has mutated – but a reality remains: If you're positive or a close contact, you cannot play. The team must make wise choices regarding its possible exposure and, frankly, anyone going to the Coliseum could assist by doing the same.
Notes: Komets captain Anthony Petruzzelli didn't practice Tuesday but is expected to go on the road trip to Worcester, and the team is hopeful he can play Saturday against the Railers. Petruzzelli suffered an apparent back injury when he was cross-checked Sunday by Toledo's Butrus Ghafari. ... The Komets signed defenseman Gabriel Belley-Pelletier, 20, who had two goals and nine points in 29 games this season for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Baie-Comeau Drakkar. He also played one game this season for Springfield of the AHL.