CINCINNATI – Give the Komets of the 2022-23 season and postseason this: They’re never uninteresting.
Their 4-3 overtime loss Friday to the Cincinnati Cyclones, in the opening game of the Central Division semifinals, saw the Komets look like a serious Kelly Cup contender for much of the game. But a familiar foible – particularly ill-timed penalties – helped the division-champion Cyclones get back into it.
The winning goal, by Louie Caporusso from 40 feet out, came with a smidge of controversy. It came off a faceoff in the Fort Wayne zone because of an icing call that the bench argued unsuccessfully should have been waved off because a Cincinnati skater could have played it near center ice.
No matter how you cut it, though, the Komets squandered a three-goal lead, in a playoff game, and that stings.
“Obviously, it sucks losing,” said Tye Felhaber, who scored two goals for Fort Wayne in his return from the American Hockey League. “We took a few penalties and that cost us. That’s going to happen in a game. But the main thing that we’re going to take away is: We’re underdogs in this series, for sure, but we didn’t play like it tonight.”
Seeded fourth in the division, against the ECHL’s second-best team, probably did turn some heads around the league as a 3-0 first-period score was seen.
“We can play with them,” Fort Wayne’s Mark Rassell said. “Everyone counted us out. Even some of our fans didn’t think we stood a chance as the fourth seed going into the playoffs. Being up 3-nothing in the first 20 minutes, we showed we can play with them. That’s the main takeaway.
“Obviously, it sucks losing, and we don’t want to give away those games, but we know we can play with them and they know we can play with them. That’s huge.”
Fort Wayne’s Oliver Cooper also scored, just 2:24 into the game, but Cincinnati’s Zack Andrusiak got the comeback going with back-to-back goals in the third period, one during a two-man advantage because Blake Siebenaler took a double-minor for high-sticking and Samuel Dove-McFalls a minor for the same offense. The Cyclones’ Matt Berry forced overtime with a power-play goal at 13:07, with a shot from between the circles, as Jake Johnson served a tripping penalty.
Cincinnati scored on 2 of 7 power plays.
“We took a couple penalties here and there, but our penalty kill did a good job for the most part,” Felhaber said. “If we can limit those penalties, we’ll be good for Game 2.”
Fort Wayne was 0 for 6 on power plays, including one it got 18:44 into the third period because Matthew Cairns interfered with Felhaber along the boards.
Game 2 of the 2-3-2 formatted series is 7:30 p.m. today at the Heritage Bank Center, where a crowd of 3,953 was on hand Friday.
Felhaber had missed the final 21 games of the Komets’ regular season because he was with the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals. He did well with them, totaling seven goals and 13 points in 21 games, and the reason he’s back in the ECHL is the Nashville Predators missed the NHL playoffs and sent a bunch of players to Milwaukee for the AHL postseason.
“He came down and did everything we expected him to do,” Rassell said of Felhaber. “He scored, he played the right way, and that was huge. And just in the locker room, his presence – he’s a happy, go-lucky guy – and he’s got experience. Having a guy like that, it’s important. It was great and the rest of us kind of rallied around him.”
Felhaber led the Komets in scoring with 63 points, including 14 goals, before he went to Milwaukee. He looked even better Friday.
“These guys are the guys I started off with this year,” Felhaber said. “I have a really good relationship with all of them, so it was awesome to be back.”
Both coaches gambled a little with their goaltending choices. Fort Wayne’s Ben Boudreau started Rylan Parenteau instead of Ryan Fanti, a prospect of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers. And Cincinnati’s Jason Payne went with Mark Sinclair instead of Beck Warm, who’s on an AHL deal with the Rochester Americans. Both coaching decisions were justified, though, based on the regular season series when Parenteau and Sinclair had superior records and save percentages to their counterparts.
Parenteau stopped 36 of 40 shots Friday night and put on an absolute show in the second period, as Fort Wayne led 3-0; he stopped a shot by Caporusso, who’d just done a Connor McDavid impersonation by stickhandling through the entire Fort Wayne defense, and also foiled Patrick Polino at the end of a breakaway rush.
Sinclair, meanwhile, turned away only 8 of 11 shots before he was replaced by Warm, who stopped all 40 shots he faced over 42:43 of play.
Fort Wayne, which finished 28 points back of Cincinnati in the division standings, had confidence coming into the game, even after losing seven of its last nine, because of its 4-4-1 record against the Cyclones during the regular season.
Cooper opened the scoring 2:24 into the first period, after Adam Brubacher outmuscled Cincinnati’s Jalen Smereck along the boards, touched a pass to Drake Rymsha, and Rymsha zipped a pass to Cooper in front of the net.
Parenteau soon protected the lead by foiling Andrusiak at the end of a 2-on-1 rush. And Fort Wayne’s Felhaber made it 2-0 all by himself at 16:09, after he intercepted a knuckling Zach Berzolla pass in the Cincinnati zone and then ripped a 40-foot shot high on Sinclair.
Felhaber scored again, 3:04 later, at the end of a leisurely 2-on-1 rush, with a snap of the puck from the right circle – Fort Wayne’s 11th shot of the period.
Notes: The Komets played without Matthew Boudens, Noah Ganske, Marcus McIvor, Jacob Graves and Tristian Pelletier, all of whom were injured. Some are expected to return for Game 2. … Stefano Giliati is also injured and out for the entire playoffs. … Allen’s Hank Crone was selected ECHL MVP by coaches, broadcasters, media-relations directors and reporters. Idaho’s Owen Headrick won Defenseman of the Year. Toledo’s John Lethemon won Goaltender of the Year. … The referees Friday were Kevin Corbett and Logan Gruhl. All playoff games utilize the two-referee system.