When the Indy Fuel and Fort Wayne Komets meet, the game going to the wire is almost a given.
A night ago, it was the Fuel that got a fortunate bounce at the end of the game. This night, it was Fort Wayne, which scored with 35 seconds left to tie the game up, then went 2-for-2 in the shootout to post a 3-2 victory over the Fuel.
The Fuel came within seconds of sweeping the two-game weekend series, but garnered three of a possible four points from their in-state rivals.
“It’s a good stepping stone for our team,” said Fuel forward Alex Wideman, who had two assists for the second straight night. “We’re out of the playoffs, but we definitely want to be spoilers for other teams. They’re fighting for h0me-ice advantage and getting three of four was good. We were 30 seconds away from getting four and ruining their weekend. The good thing is, we’ve got another game tomorrow and look to get to play spoilers again.”
Jamie Schaafsma scored the game-tying goal after the Fuel blocked two shots out to the blueline, but Jason Binkley and Shawn Szydlowski reached to hold the puck in. Szydlowski’s shot hit traffic in front and caromed to Schaafsma for the goal.
It allowed Fort Wayne a chance to steal two points, which the Komets did in the shootout. Wideman led off the shootout with a goal, but Fort Wayne netminder Pat Nagle held out the Fuel’s next two attempts. Trevor Cheek and Schaafsma both scored for Fort Wayne.
“It was a solid game,” Fuel coach Bernie John said. “The 6-on-5 goal – we had two blocks and the puck bounces the right way for them and it doesn’t bounce for us. That happens. The guys battled hard. We had some opportunities.”
Josh Shalla and Nick Bligh scored in the first period for the Fuel, staking Indy to a 2-0 lead. The two teams traded chances in an end-to-end game, but Shalla broke through with 5:06 to go in the opening period. The puck came back to Wideman after he had a shot blocked in the slot. He fired a turnaround shot that Nagle stopped, but Shalla lifted the rebound.
The first goal was key – and finally broke through after a number of opportunities, the best coming six minutes in when Nagle robbed Brady Ramsay after Shalla put a cross-ice pass on his stick on a 2-on-1.
“It’s huge,” Wideman said of drawing first blood. “They’re the second-place team in our division. They’re one of the perennial powers in the league. Anytime you can get a goal up on them, especially at home and get our crowd into it, it’s huge. We’ve done that the last two games. I think we need to keep doing the same things we’re doing in the first period and take it through all three games.”
It was Shalla’s 10th goal and 15th point in eight games against Fort Wayne this season. He has hit the scoresheet every time he has faced the Komets this year.
Indy added to the lead nine seconds after Brett Perlini was sent off for slashing. With Kenton Helgesen screening Nagle, Bligh ripped his ninth goal of the year with 45 seconds left in the first. The goal gave the Fuel three power play tallies in the two games. Indy was 1-for-4 with the man advantage Saturday night and 3-for-11 in the two-game series.
“We’ve had some different combos coming in and working at it in practice,” Wideman said. “It’s always a work in progress, but anytime you’re getting shots and screening the goalie, it doesn’t matter how good the goalie is, if they’re screened, it’s going to go in. Bligh has a tremendous shot and Helgy was in front of the goalie’s eyes. He has no chance.”
Indy carried its strong play into the second period, but Fort Wayne’s Mike Cazzola had the only goal, scoring in tight midway through the game. But until the final minute, that would be the only time the Komets solved Fuel starter Eric Levine, who made 38 saves.
A big reason why was a strong Fuel defensive effort that kept the powerful Fort Wayne attack to the outside and out of high-danger areas.
“For sure, there weren’t too many second and third opportunities,” John said. “Guys were boxing out. We weren’t as good at that last night a few times. We kept more of it to the perimeter. That’s stuff we’re working on. There’s a bunch of young guys in there learning that part of it, and they did a great job. They kept it to the outside. (Fort Wayne) got a lot of shots, but that’s a team that shoots the puck from anywhere.”
In the third period, the Komets had some early momentum, but Levine stopped Schaafsma in tight twice midway through the period. Szydlowski hit the goalpost twice in a bid to tie the game before the final minute game-tying goal. In overtime, Szydlowski had Fort Wayne’s best chance in the opening minute, which Levine smothered with the pad in tight. Wideman and Michael Neal had chances for the Fuel in a quick flurry.
John noted Friday night about each situation being a learning experience with a young team. Saturday was building off the momentum from Friday, especially in the first two periods when the Fuel built a four-goal lead in a 6-5 victory.
“That’s what we talked about – you can’t dwell on what we did at the end of the game (Friday),” John said. “Go back to what we did the first two, play hard, have fun, make the right plays. I think the one thing we’ve really preached this week is paying attention to the details – being on the right side of the puck, having sticks on the ice, keeping our feet moving. If you see that pass, make it, whether it’s direct or indirect, get pucks up quick. We were better at that tonight.”
The Fuel play the defending Kelly Cup champion Allen Americans Sunday afternoon to complete the three-game home weekend. The Fuel are 0-4-1 against Allen, but every game but one has been decided by two goals or less.
“We’ve done well against them,” Wideman said. “Maybe our record doesn’t show it, but we match up pretty well against them. They’re a good team. The first goal is huge, just like the last two nights, to try to get them on their heels and make them play our game. If we do that, we can come out with five points on the weekend, which is big for us.”
- Jamie Schaafsma (FW) G, shootout goal
- Eric Levine (Fuel) 38 saves
- Alex Wideman (Fuel) 2A, shootout goal
- For a young team, games against the top division contenders are measuring stick contests. John said after the game “We’re going in the right direction,” and that was evident this weekend. The Fuel have garnered points out of three of their last four games. Against Fort Wayne, they’ve had five games with third-period leads. The first two saw Fort Wayne come back to win in regulation. The last three have been an overtime loss after a late power play goal, a win, and a shootout loss after some incredibly unfortunate puck luck when two good defensive plays – blocked shots – ended up staying in the zone.
- Eric Levine had another strong game in the Fuel net, making 38 saves, and using his 6-foot-3 frame to make the first save and then sweep rebounds away. Levine has started six of the Fuel’s last eight contests. “He worked his tail off for us,” Wideman said. “He kept us in that game. He made some huge saves where it mattered. That one at the end was a bit of a lucky bounce – that’s the way hockey is. He couldn’t have done any more than he did. He battled for us and he really did earn that point he got for us.”
- This game was the Fuel’s first shootout since Dec. 28 in Quad City – the two previous shootouts had been on the road. The Fuel have gone beyond regulation six times this season, and have dropped all six.
- Captain Zach Miskovic was unavailable due to injury tonight, which had the Fuel down to five defenders. To give the team a full complement of six, Kenton Helgesen moved to the blueline and played most of the game at defense, but he did take a forward role on the power play and moved to the front late in the game. “When he was in Utah, we found out he played both,” John said of Helgesen, who was assigned to the Fuel last week after being acquired by the Chicago Blackhawks from the Anaheim organization. There, he had been playing for the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies. “I thought he held his own. We went with five (defensemen) the last couple of minutes to play him up front, because he’s really effective up front with his speed and his ability to create as far as getting on the puck, putting pressure on the defense.”
- Fort Wayne also made a number of lineup changes from Friday’s game, including scratching two top players – Cody Sol and Mike Embach – from Saturday’s lineup.
- Nick Bligh not only scored his ninth goal of the game, the rookie forward had a couple more chances that Nagle robbed. He now has a three-game scoring streak going. His high-energy play has given Indy an offensive spark, leading the team with six of its 29 shots. “He’s got great offensive ability. We’re working hard with him on the defensive side. He’s only a rookie. If he can get the defensive side of the game, he’s got a lot of upside because his offense is so high,” John said.
- With two assists, Wideman hit the 30-assist mark and closed in on 50 points. He currently has 48, the most for a player in a Fuel sweater this season. He tallied his 16th multi-point game and second in a row. In his last six games, he has a goal and eight assists.
- Josh Shalla continued his wizardry against Fort Wayne, with 15 points in eight games. Overall, he has scored goals in five of his last eight games and now has 17 with the Fuel and 27 for the season.
- Nick Mattson ended a 21-game scoreless streak with an assist on Bligh’s goal. He leads the Fuel blueliners with 12 assists. Adam Phillips also had an assist for his 12th of the season, eighth wiht the Fuel. Phillips has points in four of his last five games.
Matt Rupert-Kenny Ryan-Raphael Corriveau
Alex Wideman-Jake Marchment-Nick Bligh
Josh Shalla-Michael Neal-Brady Ramsay
Nick Mattson-Troy Vance
Travis Armstrong-Adam Phillips
Kenton Helgesen-Brandon Martell
BU: Jake Hildebrand
Scratches: Paul Zanette, Zach Miskovic, Bryn Chyzyk (IR), Chris Williams (IR)
Next up: The Fuel host Allen at 3:05 p.m. Sunday. The Americans were off Saturday night after beating Missouri 3-2 on Friday. They have won four straight games.