It took just 10 seconds for Alex Wideman to tie an Indy Fuel team record Tuesday night.
But Nick Bligh and the Fuel’s two newest faces stole the show in a 6-3 victory over Quad City. Bligh tallied a hat trick, while Filip Rydstrom and Austin Hervey tallied their first pro points assisting on those three goals.
The Fuel extended their unbeaten streak to six games – a 5-0-1 stretch in a game that featured Wideman scoring seconds after the opening faceoff before the rookie trio combined to bring the hats onto the ice. The Fuel extended their record to 8-3-2 in their late-season surge.
“When you’re winning, things are fun,” coach Bernie John said as music pulsated from the dressing room. “Guys are playing confident, they’re trusting each other. They’re finishing around the net.”
Bligh tallied his first pro hat trick. He said the last one came his junior year of high school.
“It was a lot of fun,” Bligh said. “It’s been like six years since I had one. I had the second one, I was looking for another opportunity. Thankfully, we found another one. It was a great pass.”
His first two goals pushed the Fuel’s lead to 4-1 in the second period. But the third was critical, as Quad City’s Donnie Harris had blasted a slapshot goal to cut the lead to 4-3. With the Mallards looking for the equalizer, Josh Shalla headmanned the puck to Austin Hervey, who broke in with Bligh on a 2-on-1. Bligh converted the cross-ice pass from Hervey to bring the hats onto the ice and more importantly, give the Fuel a 5-3 lead.
“It was 4-3. We knew we had to buckle down a little bit,” Bligh said. “Luckily, we got a little bounce off the boards and I just drove the net and he found me. It was a great pass.”
Jake Marchment tallied an empty-netter in the closing seconds to add the final margin.
Bligh’s first two goals came in the second, and pushed a 2-1 lead to 4-1. Josh Shalla had given the Fuel the lead 104 seconds into the period with a rocket off a faceoff. Less than three minutes later, the Fuel cycled the puck to Rydstrom, who set up Bligh for a one-timer to give Indy a three-goal edge. The third goal came on a rebound after a strong passing play between Bligh, Rydstrom and Matt Rupert, who had the first assist.
The three-goal lead was brief, as Quad City’s Justin Kovacs answered just over a minute later, but the Fuel maintained a 4-2 lead going into the third.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Fuel coach Bernie John said. “His offensive upside is huge. He’s really good with the puck. He’s got a great shot and he’s not afraid to shoot it. He had nine shots on net tonight. That’s what goal scorers will do.”
Rydstrom’s two-assist game came in his second professional outing after being signed on Sunday from the USHL’s Omaha Lancers. Hervey’s first pro point came in his third pro game. He was signed last week after a college career at Adrian College.
“They made a presence,” John said of Rydstrom and Hervey. “Filip made a good pass to Bligh on his first, and Hervey made a great pass to Bligh on his third. It was good for them to get some confidence in a game where we were missing some key guys. They get to play a little more than usual.”
Rydstrom was excited to have a two-point game in his second professional contest.
“It’s something you dream about,” he said.
Opportunities came about in part as the Fuel were missing red-hot forward Michael Neal, who left Sunday’s game with a lower-body injury and did not dress Tuesday. Kenton Helgesen missed his fifth straight game with injury.
But the Fuel’s formula of depth, a strong second period and defense continued to win out.
The trio of Bligh, Rupert and either Hervey or Rydstrom at center combined on three goals. Jake Marchment and Shalla each had a goal and an assist, giving the Fuel goals from all three lines.
The game opened with Paul Zanette drawing the puck to Marchment, who fed Wideman. He blew past a defender who was falling down and beat Quad City starter Adam Vay over the blocker just 10 seconds in. Wideman scored his 21st goal on the play, which was also his 54th point, tying a Fuel team record.
“When you get a team that’s traveled, you want to get off to a good start and put some pressure on them,” John said. “You hear NHL coaches talk about that. You want to get a lead so teams are chasing you. It’s more tiring to chase the lead because you’re working a little harder.”
Quad City was chasing the score much of the game. Chris Francis knotted it up with a one-timer in the slot later in the period to tie the game at 1-1 after 20 minutes, but the Fuel were controlling the play and had the better of the chances. They held an 11-8 shot edge after a period, then quickly built a three-goal lead in period two, again while preventing the Mallards many chances.
“The first and second, we played the way we wanted to – we were getting pucks up,” John said. “Even though they had some zone time, it was all on the perimeter.”
Jake Hildebrand got the start and made 32 saves in notching the victory. He is now 4-1-1 in his last six starts and won his franchise-record 18th game this season, breaking Mac Carruth’s mark of 17 wins set in 2014-15.
“Any shots come through, our guys are doing a decent job of boxing out,” John said. “Hildy played really well tonight. He made some big saves when we needed to.”
The end result was another Fuel victory. Indy has two more games – a home-and-home with Toledo – to extend the late-season winning streak into the offseason.
“We have a great group,” Bligh said. “We’ve been working really hard. We’ve been going on a good run here. It’s a great way to end the season on a high note like this.”
- Nick Bligh (Fuel) 3G, 8 shots, +3
- Matt Rupert (Fuel) 2A, +3
- Filip Rydstrom (Fuel) 2A, +2
- Nick Bligh’s hat trick wasn’t just the first of his pro career – or his college career – it was the fourth tallied by the Fuel this season. He joins Josh Shalla, Kenny Ryan and Michael Neal as players who have scored three goals in a game this season. It was the fifth hat trick in Fuel history – Kyle Stroh had the first in 2014-15. He had eight shots, and nearly had the hat trick late in the second, when Vay made an impressive save on a partial breakaway. “I was looking to have a shot-first mentality,” Bligh said. “I always try to have that in the back of my mind – to shoot the puck, get into the soft areas, and if you get to the net, good things happen. Coach has been preaching that all year. That’s where the puck’s going – you’ve got to get there.”
- Bligh now has 15 goals this season – 12 with the Fuel and three with Adirondack earlier this season before being traded to Indy. The rookie from Dartmouth appreciated his three goals also including the first points for a couple of rookie linemates. “They were great passes. My two linemates, it was their first pro points. They were passing the puck really well tonight and finding me in spots,” Bligh said.
- Bligh has two career three-point games in the ECHL, and both have come against Quad City. He had a goal and two assists in the teams’ last meeting, an 8-7 Fuel win on March 19.
- The Fuel coach also had strong praise for Austin Hervey and Filip Rydstrom, as the duo split the duty of centering Bligh and Matt Rupert. That spot had been capably handled by Michael Neal in recent weeks. “They were both good on the center on faceoffs,” John said. “They’re good, strong kids. They’re a good team. It’s good for those guys to get some confidence, get their feet wet at the pro level. Go into the offseason and understand what they have to work on and what they can do to get better. They played well. They were in the right area at times, they made smart plays.”
- Alex Wideman set a team record with a goal :10 into a game, and also tied Alex Lavoie’s team record with 54 points in a season. Lavoie set that mark in 2015-16.
- The Fuel are 5-o-1 in their last six. A big reason why is the second period. Indy has now outscored foes 11-5 in the second period in that six-game stretch.
- The Fuel PK was a perfect 2-for-2. The power play did not convert on its lone opportunity, which came in the third period. Donnie Harris scored on a slapshot within the “vulnerable minute” after he came out of the box to cut the lead to 4-3 before a strong response goal by the Fuel.
- Matt Rupert’s six-game scoring streak was ended Sunday, but he had two assists in this game to start a new one. Rupert now has seven goals and eight assists in his last 11 games, tallying points in nine of those 11. Kenny Ryan had an assist and now has a three-game scoring streak and has six goals and six assists in his last eight games. He has tallied a point in seven of those eight. Josh Shalla’s goal/assist game gives him a three-game scoring streak. Jake Marchment has points in five of his last seven games, with five goals and five assists.
- Another key to the recent streak has been the improved play of the Fuel’s defense, which has been much more stingy in recent weeks and limited high-danger scoring chances. “They’ve come together,” John said. “They’ve been keeping it a little more simple. Instead of going D-to-D several times, they’ve been getting the puck, getting it up-ice to our forwards. We’ve been talking about controlling the gap, and to do that, you get in on the rush right in the face. They’ve been doing a better job of buying into that. We don’t have a defense that’s going to go out and kill guys. We’ve got a group that likes to control the puck. It’s working right now.”
- Rydstrom was playing in the United States Hockey League last week – where he was the oldest player as a 20-year-old. Now, he’s the youngest on the Fuel and one of the youngest in the ECHL. He had 34 points for the Omaha Lancers this season, but was a 20-goal scorer in the QMJHL last year. He describes his game as a 200-foot game, where he likes to use his size to make things happen. He felt much more comfortable in his second pro game. “Sunday, I felt a bit off my game,” Rydstrom said. “The morning skate this morning and the game tonight, I felt way better. I found my game. I felt good about tonight.”
Josh Shalla-Kenny Ryan-Woody Hudson
Alex Wideman-Paul Zanette-Jake Marchment
Matt Rupert-Austin Hervey-Nick Bligh
Nick Mattson-Adam Phillips
Zach Miskovic-Chris Williams
Robin Press-Troy Vance
BU: Eric Levine
Scratches: Travis Armstrong, Brandon Martell, Michael Neal, Kenton Helgesen, Bryn Chyzyk (IR)
Next up: The Fuel finish the 2016-17 season with a home-and-home against Toledo. The home game will be at 7:35 p.m. Friday at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum. The return game and season finale will be Saturday evening in Toledo.