Newcomers, depth key Fuel hot streak

Two and a half weeks ago, the Indy Fuel had a feeling of optimism despite suffering a tough loss at home.

They were packing up the bags to head on the road for a six-game swing that would have them face playoff contenders, new teams, and give a virtually-new squad a chance to come together. And they’d shown some flashes during the third period of a hard-luck-filled 4-1 loss to Cincinnati.

By the time the Fuel returned home Friday night from that six-game trip, the team was on a roll – and continued it through a three-win weekend that saw the team pile up 10 goals, give up only three, and net the first hat trick and overtime goal in thefranchise’s history – both, by the way, tallied on back-to-back nights by newcomer Kyle Stroh.

The Fuel went on the road having just undergone an extreme makeover – adding six players via trades and loans from the AHL (and a seventh, defenseman Nick Jones, re-joined the team last weekend on another loan from the AHL). They came back a deeper, more polished hockey team that’s getting timely goal scoring, outstanding goaltending and strong defensive play, and showed it over the weekend sweep.

“It’s pretty rare to see that happen – a bunch of new faces come in and get 9 out of 10 points like we did. That shows the confidence we have in each other,” Fuel captain Mike Duco said Friday about the roadtrip that started everything. “We’re all pulling for the same goal here, whether you’re a new guy, an old guy, whatever. Hopefully, that continues.”

That nine out of 10 points has now become 15 out of 16. The Fuel will try to add to that with three home games this week, starting with a Wednesday game against Gwinnett. Reading comes to the Indiana Farmers Coliseum on Friday, and Elmira on Saturday.

“Winning is contagious,” Fuel forward Rhett Bly said after Friday’s 4-1 win over the Allen Americans which began the three-win weekend. “Losing is, too. We were down on each other, we weren’t having much fun. Once we shook up the lineup a little bit, our team attitude just changed. We love coming to the rink, we love our teammates, and we’re really pushing.”

Indy has now won six straight games, and has tallied a point in the last eight – a 7-0-1 streak that has seen two shutouts, four games allowing just one goal, a hat trick, and no more than two goals scored in regulation.

And the thing is, it could’ve been much different. The momentum really began on Jan. 10 in Toledo, when the Fuel played a solid game but fell 4-2 to the Walleye. The next day, they bounced back and saw Shane Owen post the team’s first-ever shutout in a 3-0 victory at Wheeling. After a brief respite at home, the Fuel headed south for four games against solid teams, and in the first, they lost 3-2 to Greenville on an overtime power play goal and saw two players receive suspensions. But the Fuel rallied and won the next night 4-2 against Greenville, beat a good South Carolina team 2-1, and finished the trip with a 1-0 shutout of Gwinnett.

The trip marked a significant turnaround – especially in battling back from adversity.

“We lost a tough game, we lost Hollsy for a couple of games, we lost a heartbreaker in overtime, we wake up the next day to find out we’ve lost two of our guys. It could’ve been horrible,” Hillman said. “They responded in such a positive way. That’s a sign of the additional leadership we’ve added to this locker room the last few weeks.”

The Fuel have won while dominating. They’ve won while being outshot by a wide margin, like in South Carolina. They’ve dominated the team with the best record in the league in Allen. They’ve rallied from late third-period deficits to win, as they did Sunday in Evansville. And they’ve won close games.

The makeover began the first weekend in January, when coach Scott Hillman said changes would be forthcoming after a disappointing 8-1 loss to Toledo on Jan. 2. Within days, forwards Stroh, Evan Vossen, Nicklas Lindberg and Jonathan Parker, as well as goaltender Shane Owen, were acquired via trade. Vincent Arseneau was reassigned to the Fuel by the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs. A couple of weeks before, the Fuel inked defenseman Sam Posa, who has helped solidify the blueline. And last weekend, defenseman Nick Jones – who started the year in Indy – was loaned back to the team by the AHL’s Worcester Sharks.

The remaining players took notice, as well.

“A couple of weeks ago, we shook up the roster, and it was gut-check time for everyone to look themselves in the mirror and see what more they can bring to the table,” Bly said. “Everybody, to a man, knew they needed to be better. With the changes, it seems our team attitude has improved drastically, it seems we’re working together. It’s the team-first mentality in the locker room. We’re having fun coming to the rink again, and it’s going in the right direction.”

Notably, several players have seen increased production. Stroh had seven goals and seven assists and an even +/- in 31 games before coming to the Fuel. He has six goals and six assists in 10 games since the trade – all of which have come in the last seven games. Arseneau was reunited with an old linemate from last season in Garett Bembridge, and the two have combined with Stroh to form a potent line. Bembridge had two goals and two assists in the three games last weekend. Arseneau has two goals and two assists with the Fuel, doubling his output with the Ontario Reign.

“He’s a legit power forward, good American League experience last year,” Hillman said of Arseneau. “He’s hard to handle. He’s a big, strong, nasty player. He goes to the net. He gets those ugly goals in front of the net or provides a screen. There’s great chemistry between him and Bembridge. They played together last year and knew each other.”

The trio complements each other well. Arsenau the power forward, Bembridge the playmaker on the right side and Stroh – with a quick release but also the nose to score goals in tight areas – in the middle.

“He’s an exciting player. He’s got a major-league release. He’s played with confidence,” Hillman said of Stroh.

But that’s also led to depth throughout the team. Mike Duco – another player with a reputation for getting “greasy goals” in front of the net has been paired with the veteran Lindberg. Bly, Matt White and Evan Vossen create a strong checking line. Add in a scorer in Pete Massar, an all-around player in Dean Chelios and tough guys Garrett Klotz and Johnny McGuire, and the Fuel have a deep forward corps. They also have 26-point scorer Parker, who went on 21-day IR after playing two games in Indy.

Several of the newcomers had experience in the Central Hockey League, where Hillman coached the previous five seasons before coming to Indy.

They’re providing scoring depth, too. Duco had two goals and an assist over the weekend, and Bly a pair of assists. What they’re also doing is slotting into roles well, and that’s showing in a renewed commitment to defensive play. They’re backchecking well, not allowing a lot of great scoring chances, and they’re making things happen on the penalty kill, too, having killed off 31 of the last 33.

Part of that is from players slotting into key roles – like the newly-acquired Vossen, a penalty-killing specialist.

“The whole reason we wanted Evan Vossen was because I knew from our experience together, he knows how to kill penalties,” Hillman said. “He knows how to block shots, better than anyone we had. Now, he’s out there doing it. Those types of things start to spread. Guys are paying attention to detail in the D-zone, that spreads. Guys blocking shots, that spreads. Arseneau driving the net in his first game and deflects one in. The next night, Duco drives the net and deflects one in. Those habits start to spread. It’s fortunate that we’ve been able to acquire some players we know personally, we know how they play. We know those habits that we’ve been trying to incorporate and we see what we’ve been lacking.”

Add to that a defensive corps that’s seeing a lot of young players growing into roles and seeing consistent pairings – Sam Posa-Nick Bruneteau are both strong shot blockers, Dan Ford-Anders Franzon have both been solid, and Justin Holl-Kirll Gotovets/Dillon Fournier are all Blackhawks/Rockford prospects who have shown great versatility this season. Posa and Ford were also recent acquisitions prior to the turn of the calendar.

It’s a young corps – Ford, Bruneteau, Holl and Fournier are rookies, Franzon and Gotovets are in their second year, and Posa was playing college hockey before coming to the Fuel. But the forward crew also has several rookies – including Massar and Bly. Their acclimation to the professional game has also been key here at midseason, and it’s especially shown on the defensive end.

“It’s the close games that we were losing early in the year, and it was because of simple things that we’ve tightened up,” Bly said. “Us young guys – myself included – we’re a little more acclimated to the pace, what it takes defensively to actually defend in this league. Good players, if you’re not tight defensively, they’re going to make you pay. We’re learning the ropes, and it’s definitely a commitment to team defense right now. It’s a winning attitude in the locker room.”

What’s it leading to? Goaltenders who are putting up big numbers. Mac Carruth was just named the ECHL’s Goaltender of the Week after posting a shutout and a 0.67 GAA. Carruth has won five straight starts and has a sub-1.00 GAA, and Owen is 2-0-1 in his last three with a 1.33 GAA. The commitment to defense has seen the Fuel not allow more than two goals in regulation for eight consecutive games.

“Defensively, they make it pretty easy on me night-in and night-out,” Carruth said.

“If you’re getting night after night solid, consistent play from one of your goaltenders, you’re in good shape,” Hillman said. “If you can get it from two, you’re in really good shape. That’s been the case here recently.”

And, it’s been a team that has come together quickly.

“We’re all working together, we’re all the time talking, we’ve got a good team spirit going on right now and we’re building every game on that,” Arseneau said. “It’s going to get better every game.”