Even though they’re not in the playoffs, the Indy Fuel have had quite a bit to say about the ECHL’s postseason race in the last few weeks.
They did so again Sunday, as Alex Wideman’s shootout goal sealed a 3-2 victory over Cincinnati at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum .For the Fuel, it was a victory over a team that entered the day tied for the final playoff spot in the South Division. It came a week after Indy beat two other teams in the mix for that spot – Greenville and South Carolina – on the road.
Sunday’s game was a tight-checking affair with few scoring chances and outstanding goaltending from the Fuel’s Eric Levine and Cincinnati’s Michael Houser and wasn’t decided until Wideman scored in the second round of the shootout and Levine stopped Nick Huard after multiple dekes to seal it.
“There’s nothing better,” Levine said of finishing the shootout with a walk-off save. “That’s the reason you put the pads on.”
The Fuel are now 4-0-1 in their last five games and 7-3-2 in their last 12. The run has come with a lot of resiliency. In three straight games, Indy trailed 1-0 after a period, but rallied to take the lead in the second. In all of their last four wins, they have not surrendered a third-period goal.
It’s also come with a lot of hard work and attention to detail, especially in what coach Bernie John calls “the work zone.”
“From my end, we’re backchecking hard,” Levine said of the Fuel’s recent run of success. “We’re not making soft plays. We’re just competing. You see the guys injected into the lineup, whether it’s college guys or picked-up D-men or whoever, the effort level is there. We were missing that. ‘
“We’ve been working our butts off. We’re getting rewarded – we’re doing the things we need to do to get to the net, and it’s been one game, you get a little more confidence and get that feeling ‘this is fun.’ We’re out of the playoffs, but guys are playing for jobs next year, and for guys for whom this might be their last year, you’re playing for pride.”
Tied 2-2 going into the third, the Fuel expected a push from a Cyclones team which was both desperate for two points, but also playing cautiously in its own end as to not surrender any standings points.The Fuel had a solid penalty kill, but surrendered few chances – the best came from Christiaan Minella, who rang the goalpost off the rush. The rebound fell in the crease, but Levine fell on it. Indy had a late power play, but was unable to capitalize.
It was another strong third period in a close game for the Fuel.
“Earlier, we really struggled in the third period, closing out games,” said Fuel forward Kenny Ryan, who scored one of the team’s two goals. “As a team, we’re finding a way to do that, and it’s showing in our wins and getting points. It’s a good team effort right now, and it’s fun to play.”
In the overtime, Cincinnati had seven shots and the Fuel three, but Indy had two outstanding chances – Troy Vance hit the goalpost on the rush and Wideman nearly ended the game with a spin-o-rama and a shot for the 5-hole that Houser was able to squeeze.
“You look at the standings, they’re in a playoff race,” Levine said. “They did a really good job. The first two periods, I didn’t have much. We kept everything to the outside. Both goals today, they were kind of on me. Those are ones I’ve got to have. We expected a push. They were a team playing for their lives. In the third period, we knew they were going to come out hard. But our defense did great out there.”
Levine stopped 14 shots in the third period, seven in OT and 37 for the game.
The only two that got past were a late first-period goal by Brandon McNally off the rush, a snipe from the right wing, and a goal by Craig Dalrymple that deflected into the net to tie the game late in the second period.
Much of the Cyclones’ game was kept to the perimeter, a big key being the Fuel’s attention to detail in the defensive zone. In the last five games, the Fuel goaltenders have combined for a .954 save percentage, and have held foes to two or fewer goals in all four wins. Levine has stopped 107 of the last 111 shots he has faced, a .964 save percentage in three straight wins.
The Fuel’s strong goaltending has also included a strong attention to detail on defense.
“The detail is the sticks – keeping good stick on puck all the time,” John said. “At the end of the day, people say ‘you got outshot by 10.’ We don’t look at total shots, we look at scoring chances. We want more shots, but guys are paying attention to detail. They’re in shooting lanes. They’re getting stick-on-puck, which is what we preach. That’s the detail stuff, it’s keeping everything to the perimeter. At this level, with our goaltenders, anything to the perimeter, they’re going to stop.”
In-between the Cincinnati tallies, the Fuel scored two goals in a four-and-a-half minute span to respond to the first goal and take a 2-1 lead.
The first came from the red-hot Michael Neal, who scored on a give-and-go with Adam Phillips off the rush. For Neal, it extended his scoring streak to five games, and gives him 10 goals and 10 assists in a 12-game stretch.
The second came off a Cincinnati turnover that saw Josh Shalla start the rush and get the puck to Nick Bligh, who fed Ryan with a cross-ice pass for the finish.
“Bligh made a nice pass back-door and I put it in,” Ryan said.
And while it was a tight-checking, low-scoring game – a much different feel than the wide-open game played Saturday night against Fort Wayne in another shootout – it ended with a strong result that allowed the Fuel to again influence the playoff race.
“Matt (MacDonald, Cincinnati coach) does a good job with that team. They’ve lost a lot of good players and they’re still in the playoff hunt. That’s one thing I’m really proud of our guys – we’re playing teams in meaningful games. They’re trying to do some stuff,” John said. “We’re playing for pride, joy and jobs, and these guys are really battling.”
- Eric Levine (Fuel) 37 saves
- Nick Bligh (Fuel) 2A
- Kenny Ryan (Fuel) G
- Michael Neal continued his recent hot streak. While his string of multi-point games was stopped at four, he had a goal and extended his scoring streak to five. However, Neal suffered a leg injury in the third period after falling awkwardly in traffic while trying to make a play behind the net. He left the ice with help from teammates. As of Sunday afternoon, his status was expected to be day-to-day. John also said Kenton Helgesen, who has missed the last four games with an injury, could be back as soon as Tuesday’s game against Quad City.
- Matt Rupert’s scoring streak was snapped at six games, but the forward had a solid game with two shots and he was on the ice for the Fuel’s first goal.
- While protecting the house was critical for the Fuel, it was also key for Cincinnati, which was trying to ensure it got at least a point out of the day and took few chances, therefore giving the Fuel few chances. “They don’t want to give up. When it gets tied, they want to sit back if they can,” John said. “You’ve got to ad-lib, which is what hockey is. You’ve got to find the seams, find lanes, find opportunities.”
- The Fuel added a newcomer Sunday in forward Filip Rydstrom. He tallied 34 points and 186 penalty minutes for the USHL’s Omaha Lancers. He saw a regular shift after Neal’s injury, taking his spot on the line with Matt Rupert and Nick Bligh.
- Nick Bligh assisted on both Fuel goals. It was his fifth multi-point game with the Fuel.
- Kenny Ryan’s goal gave him points in six of the last seven games. In that stretch, he has six goals and five assists.
- One play that doesn’t show up in the boxscore but was cited by Levine was Nick Mattson hustling to stop a potential 2-on-0 in the final minute. A night before, he scrambled back after a blocked shot at the offensive blueline to stop a potential breakaway. Mattson has been a steady part of the Fuel’s top pairing. “He’s been playing really well,” John said. “He’s more a of a containment guy with a really good stick. He’s got good patience with the puck. If you’ve got guys that can contain and keep things to the perimeter.”
- In the last five games, the Fuel have had strong second periods, outscoring teams 8-4 in the middle frame – including 5-2 in the last two days. Indy has also outscored teams 7-2 in the third period in that stretch.
- Levine has now won three straight starts and has allowed just four goals on 111 shots in that span. “He was great today,” John said. “He made big, key saves. He made saves that kept us in it. That’s a confidence thing. When our goalies are playing that well, maybe at times, we can take a chance.”
- Indy played its sixth shootout of the season – the second in as many nights. The Fuel are now 2-4 in shootouts, having won their first of the year on Nov. 11 in Alaska. That shootout win started a six-game win streak for the Fuel and seven-game point streak. This shootout win continued the season’s second-longest point streak.
- The Fuel finished the year 5-7-0 against Cincinnati, their most victories against an opponent this season.
Josh Shalla-Kenny Ryan-Woody Hudson
Alex Wideman-Paul Zanette-Jake Marchment
Matt Rupert-Michael Neal-Nick Bligh
Nick Mattson-Adam Phillips
Zach Miskovic-Robin Press
Brandon Martell-Troy Vance
BU: Jake Hildebrand
Scratches: Austin Hervey, Chris Williams, Travis Armstrong (res), Kenton Helgesen (res), Bryn Chyzyk (IR)
Roster moves: Prior to the game, the Fuel signed forward Filip Rydstrom and activated defenseman Robin Press from reserve. Defenseman Travis Armstrong was placed on reserve.
Next up: The Fuel are back in action Tuesday at home against Quad City at 7:05 p.m., beginning the final week of the season. It will conclude with a home-and-home against Toledo that begins at 7:35 p.m. Friday at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum.