Game 68: Fuel vs. Fort Wayne

After falling behind by two goals early Saturday night, the Indy Fuel’s hottest sticks continued their streaks.

Michael Neal (center) and Chris Williams (right) try to play the puck during the Fuel’s 5-4 SO loss to Fort Wayne. Neal had two goals and an assist in the game. Photo by Whiteshark Photography

Michael Neal scored twice and assisted on a goal by Josh Shalla in the second period to rally the Fuel back from an early two-goal deficit.

As a result, the Fuel continued their recent streak, as well. While Mike Embach scored in the fifth round of the shootout to give Fort Wayne a 5-4 victory over the Fuel, Indy garnered a point for the fourth straight game. The Fuel are now 3-0-1 in that stretch, 4-1-1 in their last last six and 6-3-2 in their last 11 contests.

Neal’s three-point night gave him four multi-point games in a row, and 19 points in his last 11 games. Matt Rupert had assists on both of Neal’s goals to extend his scoring streak to six games. Josh Shalla and Jake Marchment added power-play goals to give the Fuel leads in the third period. Fort Wayne’s Shawn Szydlowski and Mike Cazzola answered each Fuel goal to send the game to overtime.

“Kudos to the guys. They worked hard,” Fuel coach Bernie John said. “They’ve been playing a lot of hockey against good teams and against playoff teams that aren’t set in the playoff standings, who are trying to do some things themselves. Our guys battled and got a lead. We had some simple plays, simple breakdowns, but we got a point. We’re happy. We’ll try to do it tomorrow and get five out of six (points).”

The Fuel will look to clinch that five-point weekend with a 3:05 p.m. Sunday game against the Cincinnati Cyclones at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum.

Neal and Rupert have developed strong chemistry in recent games. They skated with Nick Bligh and newcomer Austin Hervey for much of the game Friday night.

Woody Hudson carries the puck during the Fuel’s 5-4 shootout loss to Fort Wayne. Photo by Whiteshark Photography

“We’ve played very well together,” Rupert said. “(Neal)’s a big body, goes to the net, brings the puck to the net. He makes me better and we’re thriving off each other.”

The Fuel fell behind 2-0 on a pair of power play goals, as Fort Wayne took advantage of a hot start to outshoot Indy 17-4 in the opening period. Kyle Thomas scored from the left circle in the first and Ryan Lowney buried a shot off the rush five minutes into the second – the latter coming on the ensuing rush after Jake Marchment was stopped on a breakaway.

It was the second straight night the Fuel had to rally from a slow start.

“Slow starts, tonight and in Toledo, we had slow first-period starts,” Rupert said. “We were down 1-0 and battled back, and in this game, we battled back. We have it in us to score lots of goals. It’s just a matter of time.”

But the Fuel’s hottest line combined again to spark the comeback. It started with Neal deflecting a rebound of Chris Williams’ shot with 10:21 to go in the second.

“I just tried to get a pice of it,” Neal said. “It hit four or five different shin pads and bounced off the goalie and in.”

Neal’s next went straight in, as he was the trailer on an odd-man rush. Zach Miskovic found Rupert, who dropped Neal the puck. The veteran then blasted a shot to tie the game with his second goal in 2:45.

The turning point came late in the second period, when the Fuel were whistled for back-to-back penalties – which included 21 seconds of 5-on-3. Kenny Ryan won a big faceoff, the Fuel killed off the two-man advantage without a shot, and the second penalty was abbreviated by a penalty on the Komets’ Trevor Cheek. Indy’s power play then took advantage as Josh Shalla continued his Komet-killing with a goal at the second-period horn.

“To win the draw, win the little battle, and then to finish it off with our own power play goal, that was key,” John said. “Special teams wins you a lot of hockey games. They have one of the best power plays in the league, but our power play going 2-for-3 was good.”

Shalla was able to stuff in a rebound on a shot that Neal fired from the center point as the clock wound down. Referee Andrea Barone emphatically pointed at the net to signal a good goal.

“I knew there wasn’t a lot of time on the clock, but in any of those positions, you want to get the puck to the net,” Neal said. “Our power play hadn’t been doing that much, and you want to just get the puck to the net where they can whack it in.”

Matt Rupert gets to the puck in the slot while Fort Wayne’s Will Weber (29) and goaltender Garrett Bartus defend Saturday night. Rupert had three assists in the game. Photo by Whiteshark Photography

That buzzer-beater gave the Fuel a lead going into the third. Szydlowski tied the game early off a neutral-zone turnover, as he got a lane and scored his 24th goal of the season with a high glove shot, but Indy again drew a power play and answered with a goal. This time, Komet goaltender Garrett Bartus made a save on a point shot, but Kenny Ryan followed it up and fired the rebound across the crease to Marchment, who had an open side.

The lead held until the final five minutes, when Cazzola was able to bury a rebound. THat came after a number of spectacular saves by Jake Hildebrand, his best coming when he sprawled across the crease to rob Gabriel Desjardins as the Komets had begun celebrating. On another, he pounced on a shot by Szydlowski at the side of the net. Hildebrand stopped 42 shots in the contest. The Fuel defenders were also throwing their bodies at shots in the third period with a number of blocks.

“It’s all about blocking shots,” Rupert said. “It’s a lot of hard work and dedication and willpower. It’s all for Hildy, too. He blocks 40 shots a night.”

In the overtime, Garrett Thompson had the Komets’ best chance but put a partial breakaway chance wide. Shalla had Indy’s top chance off a faceoff, but was high with a low-slot blast. Each team went 1-for-3 in the regulation shootout – Trevor Cheek scored for Fort Wayne in the second round and Nick Bligh answered in the third. In the fourth round, Neal and Fort Wayne’s Brett Perlini were both stopped. Ryan was stopped with a pad save in the fifth round before Embach ended it with a snap shot.

The Fuel will look to extend their point streak and recent run as they continue their four-game homestand Sunday against Cincinnati – another team battling for playoff position.

“We’re in a unique position, but you want to play strong and play for something,” Neal said. “You want to play for next year and make a good impression on the coaches here, and also for the fans, because they’re here night-in and night-out for us.”

Boxscore

Three stars

  1. Michael Neal (Fuel) 2G/A
  2. Shawn Szydlowski (FW) G/2A
  3. Mike Cazzola (FW) G/A

Takeaways

  1. The Fuel scored four goals for the sixth consecutive game – they’re 4-1-1 in those games – and seventh time in eight games. One key has been making simple plays. Three of Saturday’s goals were of the “greasy” variety – rebounds and jams around the crease. “One thing we’ve done is we’ve been telling guys is to go to the net and finish at the net,” John said. “You see that with Shalls’ goal – he goes to the net and finishes there. Same with Marchment’s goal. They’re finishing at the net – they’re getting those dirty area goals. You realize the simple plays are good plays.”
  2. Having a four-game scoring streak is quite an accomplishment. To have multi-point games in four straight is incredible, and that’s what Michael Neal has done. Since coming to the Fuel from Germany, Neal has 22 points in 20 games. He has three goals and six assists in the last four games. In the last 11, he has nine goals and 10 assists, and has tallied multi-point contests in nine of those games. Saturday marked his third three-point game with the Fuel. ” We’re saying, ‘let’s go out and have some fun, let’s play hard, get some pucks on net.’ We know when we’re playing good, we’re going to have some chances,” Neal said of his line, which has been with Rupert and Nick Bligh the majority of the time of late.
  3. Josh Shalla continued his wizardry against Fort Wayne. In nine games against the Komets this year, he finished with 11 goals and five assists. One of those assists came while playing with Wheeling, the rest over eight games with the Fuel. Shalla tallied at least one point in every game he played against Fort Wayne this season.
  4. Rupert had three assists – his first multiple-assist game of the year. His three points were a season high.
  5. Jake Marchment’s third-period goal gave him a tally for the fourth time in five games. Kenny Ryan had two assists and has points in five of his last six games. He’s had four multi-point games in that stretch.
  6. Another player who made a big impression was Woody Hudson. The rookie was a physical presence, a heat-seeking missile who thunderously finished his checks, much to the delight of the crowd, especially when favorite villain Cody Sol was the recipient. Hudson’s biggest was a hard check on Dan Milan that precipitated a fight with Curtis Leonard that Hudson won handily. It was the first pro fight for the Fuel rookie. “It was a good, hard, clean hit,” John said. “He was hitting Sol all over the place, finishing his checks. When you have a guy that does that, it allows guys more room. and it puts defensemen on their heels, because they take a look when he’s on the ice and they know they’re going to get hit.”
  7. Indy finished the season 1-5-3 against Fort Wayne, with the last three games a win and two shootout losses. Indy had third-period leads in six of the nine games played between the two teams.
  8. While the Fuel’s duo of Neal and Rupert have been scoring, Indy has had depth on all three of its lines, and players from each of the three lines scored goals for the second straight game. Each features a 20-goal scorer – and a number of others who could be close. And that creates matchup issues for opponents as the Fuel have depth. “You look at last night and tonight, we’ve got every line scoring a goal,” John said, referencing Friday’s 4-1 win in Toledo. “We’re getting everyone involved. Our D are getting involved. The balance has been there, it’s been nice … There’s a lot of double-digit goal guys on every line. You have to have that, because if you try to stack everybody on one line, it’s easy for a team to put a certain line out there and not allow that to happen.”
  9. Stick tap to Fort Wayne rookie Ryan Lowney, who scored his first pro goal in the second period.

Lineup

Josh Shalla-Kenny Ryan-Woody Hudson
Alex Wideman-Paul Zanette-Jake Marchment
Matt Rupert-Michael Neal-Nick Bligh
Austin Hervey

Nick Mattson-Adam Phillips
Zach Miskovic-Chris Williams
Travis Armstrong-Troy Vance

Jake Hildebrand
BU: Eric Levine

Scratches: Brandon Martell, Robin Press (res), Kenton Helgesen (res), Bryn Chyzyk (IR)

Next up: The Fuel host Cincinnati at 3:05 p.m. Sunday. The Cyclones beat Toledo 5-3 Saturday night in Cincy. Indy then hosts Quad City at 7:05 p.m. Tuesday.