The Indy Fuel came into Saturday night looking at the South Carolina Stingrays’ 23-game winning streak as an opportunity.
A chance to get two critical standings points, but also to make some ECHL history in the process.
The history was made.
Garett Bembridge and Justin Holl scored second-period goals to give Indy a lead, and Mac Carruth made 17 of his 36 saves in the third period to seal a 3-2 victory for the Indy Fuel over South Carolina in front of a raucous crowd of 4,884 Saturday at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum.
The victory snapped a 23-game win streak for the Stingrays that began on Feb. 7, the longest streak in ECHL history and the second-longest in North American professional hockey history. The game had play0ff-like intensity, and the Fuel won with a playoff-style game – make few mistakes, score first, win special teams, get good goaltending and make simple plays with a lead in the third period.
“Their streak is one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my career,” Bembridge said. “It was pretty special what they did, but we said ‘why not us’ tonight. They’d been playing pretty well. They had a game in Toledo last night and traveled in late, so we said ‘let’s get on them early.’ It was pretty important for us to get the win. It didn’t matter who we played.”
The Fuel seized control of the game in the second period. With the game tied 1-1, Indy generated a couple of strong early chances – Kyle Stroh just missed a tip wide, and a minute later, Chris DeSousa hit the crossbar on the rush from the left circle.
The Fuel broke through 5:24 into the period, with Justin Holl skating into the zone and keeping the puck on his stick like a magnet, working his way through several Stingrays on a tour of the neutral and left side of the attacking zone. He sent the puck over to Jamie Wise, who got it back to Holl for a blast that went through the 5-hole of South Carolina goaltender Keegan Asmundson, giving the Fuel a 2-1 lead.
“I think I fanned on the puck twice,” Holl said. “I got the puck back. Found Wise in the slot, he got it back to me and I just tried to pound it on net.”
With 7:51 left in the period, South Carolina’s Caleb Herbert went off for high-sticking. While the Fuel didn’t score on the power play, they cashed in seconds after, with Holl feeding Bembridge in the low slot. The veteran Bembridge had time to pick his corner, and fired it over Asmundson’s glove and under the bar to give Indy a 3-1 lead with 5:45 remaining in the second.
“It was a great play by (Mike) Duco,” Bembridge said. “He got in there and got the puck. I got in position to get a pass, and he made a pass to Justin Holl. I got in behind their guy and was screaming. He made a great heads-up play. We had a guy going back-door, and the D didn’t know what to do. I just waited him out.”
Asmundson, a rookie from Canisius College making his first professional start, made 20 saves in the loss.
After taking a 3-1 lead, it was a matter of defending and preserving the lead – and Carruth made it stand up. He made a couple of big saves in tight and through screens on a South Carolina power play late in the second. The Stingrays did score with 1:17 remaining in the period on a shot by Andrew Rowe that appeared to deflect into the net, cutting the Fuel’s lead to 3-2.
In the third, the Stingrays came out with an early surge, but Carruth was big, his best save coming on Caleb Herbert by flashing the pad out on his shot from the low slot in traffic 90 seconds in. At the halfway point, he stuffed Rob Bellamy on the doorstep as the game got end-to-end.
The Fuel had an early chance, as Duco skated through two Stingrays defenders and fed Anders Franzon for a partial breakaway three minutes in, but Asmundson was able to stop it.
Indy spent much of the third period keeping South Carolina to the outside, defending and chipping the puck out of the zone, limiting the Stingrays’ chances.
“I thought we played with pretty good confidence. We made a lot of safe plays, chipping pucks out, took some icing calls instead of turning the puck over. We were able to clear the zone most times, and at least made them go back and start again,” Hillman said.
“That’s a dangerous hockey team that’s made a habit of coming back late in the third over the last five or six games in this stretch. We make those safe plays, keep using the walls, keep gapping up and making it tough to get in over the blueline.”
South Carolina had one last chance when Evan Vossen was sent off for kneeing with 1:45 left. The Stingrays pulled the goaltender and had a 6-on-4. They spent the first minute of the power play in the Fuel zone, and Carruth got a pad on Joe Devin’s in-tight shot with :55 left, but Duco followed with a clear, and the Fuel cleared the puck twice more in the last 40 seconds.
“It was really important for us to be aggressive,” Holl said of the late penalty kill. “We’d had good success in the whole game being aggressive on the penalty kill – not allowing them time to set up. They got set up a couple of times, but we just tried to take away time and space at that point.”
Carruth made a number of saves with traffic in front and in tight, especially in the third.
In the first, he also stopped a penalty shot by the Stingray’s Patrick Gaul, awarded after the Fuel were whistled for a skater closing his hand on the puck in the crease.
“He was great the whole game,” Holl said of Carruth. “Even when we got the penalty kill with 1:45 remaining, we were saying ‘we’re going to kill this off, but even if we make a mistake, Mac’s got our back.’ We felt pretty confident going into that.”
“I thought Mac had a real solid game for us, which we needed him to do,” Hillman added. “He was our best player in the third period.”
After an early penalty kill, the Fuel came out flying in the first period, and generated a number of chances on their first power play. Carruth’s best save came early, a diving blocker save on Derek DeBlois on the PP with eight minutes to go in the first. He also had a strong pad save on Herbert four minutes later and was shaken up on the play, but continued.
The Fuel drew first blood with 3:30 left in the period. Twenty seconds into their second power play, Mike Duco fired into a pile in front of the net. Asmundson made the first save, but Bembridge got a whack on the rebound and it popped to DeSousa at the left side of the net, who popped it into an open side to give Indy a 1-0 lead.
Reading answered with a surge in the final minute – a first play resulting in the penalty shot which Carruth saved with :36 left, and then getting a goal from Jason Binkley, who wired a shot from the point through traffic to tie the game with 10 seconds remaining.
But Indy answered with a strong, solid, fundamental game.
“We had to play that kind of game,” Bembridge said. “They’re one of the hottest teams in the league. They’re doing everything right, so we need to do everything better than that, better than we’ve done all season. It was a great effort. We got the puck down low, we had a great penalty kill, guys were blocking shots and Mac had a heck of a game. That’s what we need to win.”
- Garett Bembridge (Fuel) GWG, A
- Mac Carruth (Fuel) 36 saves, 2 GA
- Justin Holl (Fuel) G, A
- What more can be said? South Carolina came in with a 23-game winning streak, and was playing some outstanding hockey. The streak was certainly in the minds of the Indy players. “It was a huge win for us,” Holl said. “There was some motivation there to break the streak. It was a good effort all around.”
- The Fuel did so with a very, very solid third period where they kept the Stingrays to the outside, and forced them to chase the puck a lot. “It’s a tough balance,” Holl said. “In the third period, you want to make sure you’re playing well defensively but you don’t want to shell up. You want to get pucks in deep and play with confidence, and I feel like we did that tonight.”
- The penalty kill with 1:45 left might have been the biggest 105 seconds of the season for the Fuel. And, despite being down 6-on-4, it was a textbook kill – defensemen winning puck battles, the puck staying on the wall, and three clearances. Matt White bled some critical time late in the PK by jamming the puck along the boards in the Fuel’s offensive zone after a clear.
- With Asmundson making his first start, the Fuel tried to test him early by firing pucks at him. Indy had 11 first-period shots, a lot from the points and circles to make him make saves. Jeff Jakaitis, who shut out the Fuel (and several other teams) last week en route to an ECHL-record shutout streak that tallied over 300 minutes, was not in uniform, and neither was Adam Morrison, who leads the ECHL in GAA. “We talked about it a lot – the difference between this goalie who’s 6-5 and their other goalie that’s 5-8,” Hillman said of getting shots on Asmundson. “We got a couple of great shots, but lots of shots for rebounds that we could’ve scored on.”
- Interesting side note – Asmundson and Fuel defenseman Doug Jessey were making their professional debuts Saturday night as opponents. Last week, they were teammates at Canisius, playing in the Atlantic Hockey Association tournament. They know each other fairly well – they’re college roommates.
- The Fuel know what it’s like to play a good game and run into a hot goaltender, so it was nice to see the shoe on the other foot with Carruth’s outstanding game. Carruth was tracking the puck well and made a number of strong positional saves through screens with the Stingrays creating traffic in front of the net. “We’ve played some good games and lost to real good goaltenders the last stretch for us where we could’ve come out with a lot more victories the last five or six games,” Hillman said. “South Carolina faced the same thing.”
- The Fuel won the season series with the Stingrays, going 2-1-1 in the three games.
- Justin Holl had a goal and an assist, and was +1 with two shots. He helped lead the transition game by carrying the puck up-ice, and had a strong puck-possession game. “South Carolina is a really good defensive team, so anytime a defenseman can join the rush and contribute some offense, it’s definitely a good thing,” Holl said. “As long as you’re getting good offensive chances, you want to keep going.”
- Indy won the special teams battle, going 1-3 on the PP and scoring six seconds after another PP expired. South Carolina was 0-4 with the man advantage.
- Bembridge’s goal was his team-best 27th of the season. He now has a three-game scoring streak going and has tallied points in eight of his last 10 games. It was his fifth multi-point game of that stretch.
- Justin Holl’s goal was his first since March 7 against Wheeling, and his sixth of the season.
- Chris DeSousa has been close to a point-a-game player and tallied his 12th point in 14 games. He scored his first goal since St. Patrick’s Day in Kalamazoo, and his sixth of the year.
- Mike Duco had two assists, his first two-assist game of the season. He also had his first multi-point game since March 7 against Evansville. Both of his helpers came on – or immediately after – the PP.
- Carruth’s penalty shot save was the first in-game penalty shot to be taken by either team in a Fuel game in the Indiana Farmers Coliseum. Carruth is 2-for-2 on them this year – he also stopped Brett Perlini in Fort Wayne on Feb. 28.
One flip in the forward lines tonight – Mike Duco and Matt White flipped spots. Doug Jessey made his first career professional start on defense with Nick Bruneteau unavailable.
Chris DeSousa-Kyle Stroh-Garett Bembridge
Matt White-Nicklas Lindberg-Pete Massar
Mike Duco-Jamie Wise-Rhett Bly
Anders Franzon-Nick Jones
Saverio Posa-Justin Holl
Kirill Gotovets-Doug Jessey
BU: Shane Owen
Scratches: Peter Schneider, Nick Bruneteau (susp – 1 game), Dan Ford (res), Johnny McGuire (res)
Standings watch: The Fuel gained a standings point on Cincinnati, but kept pace with everyone else. Kalamazoo beat Colorado 2-1 to stay in third with 71 points. Wheeling beat Reading 5-2 to move into fourth place with 66 points. Cincinnati lost a late 2-goal lead and eventually dropped a 4-3 decision to Fort Wayne in OT, leaving the Cyclones in fifth with 65 points. The Fuel now have 63 points at 27-29-9. Wheeling has eight games remaining, while Cincy/Kalamazoo/Indy all have seven games left. The top four teams in each division make the playoffs. On Sunday, Kalamazoo is at Colorado and Wheeling hosts Cincinnati.
Next up: The Fuel have four games in five nights, starting Wednesday against Toledo at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum. The three-game weekend stretch starts with a roadtrip to Cincinnati on Friday, followed by home games against Fort Wayne on Saturday and Elmira Sunday afternoon. “We’ve got to win a lot of hockey games in a short amount of time,” Hillman said. “We’re playing a lot of very good teams. We’re going to give it our best shot.”