Alex Wideman and Austin Hervey both reached milestones Friday night and the evening ended with the Indy Fuel skating off saluting a raucous crowd.
The only thing Friday didn’t have was a victory.
The Fuel put together a solid performance, but Nolan Zajac’s power play goal midway through the second stood up as the winner to give the visiting Toledo Walleye a 3-2 victory Friday at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum.
The win clinched a tie for the Brabham Cup – the ECHL regular-season championship – for Toledo. For the Fuel, it was a bittersweet home finale – one that featured a team continuing its late-season surge, but just coming up short in a close game. It was the Fuel’s first regulation loss in seven games.
“We wanted to win the last game for our fans. They’ve been great all year,” Wideman said. “(Toledo) is a good team over there and they’ve got a good chance to win the whole thing. We battled to the last second of the game.
“A lot of teams could have folded and given up, but we didn’t. It shows the kind of guys we have in the locker room. It’s bee a good end to the year, and we have one more game. Hopefully, we can win one more.”
It did feature Wideman becoming the team’s single-season scoring leader with 55 points. It also saw Hervey score his first career goal, a second-period tally that drew Indy within one. But the goaltenders – Indy’s Jake Hildebrand and Toledo’s Jake Paterson – were there when called upon and the Fuel were unable to get the equalizer.
“They played solid. We were a little slow the first 14, 15 minutes – I don’t know if we were slow, but we were slow to pucks in our zone,” Fuel coach Bernie John said. “In the second, I thought we were real good. All they had in the second was what they had on the power play. I thought we had it killed off and they got one on the tip. “I thought the boys battled hard. We had some good looks.”
The Fuel had a lot of good looks in the second and third periods against Paterson, but the Walleye had a lot of jump early. Alex Globke put Toledo on the board nine minutes into the game with a goal off the rush. Twenty seconds after Wideman tied it on the Fuel’s second shot of the game, Kyle Bonis scored on a faceoff play to restore Toledo’s lead. Bonis was playing his first game after returning from a long stint in the American Hockey League.
Wideman’s goal came as Zach Miskovic hit his stick in stride with a stretch pass to the offensive blueline. He beat both the defenseman Paterson to tie the game. The goal gave Wideman 22 for the season, and a team-record 55 points, breaking Alex Lavoie’s total of 54 from the 2015-16 season.
“I hopped on the ice and found some open space in the middle,” Wideman said. “That’s where I like to use my speed. Misko made a great pass to me. I was able to come in with speed and the D wasn’t able to match that at the time.”
“You can’t really beat it when you get a pass to a scorer like Wides,” Miskovic added.
The middle frame started with Paterson shutting down a spinning backhand from Wideman, but back-to-back Fuel penalties gave Toledo a minute-long 5-on-3. Indy killed that portion of the penalty without surrendering a shot. However, in the closing seconds of the second penalty, Zajac floated a shot from the point that got deflected into the net with 9:31 left in the second.
That goal turned out to be the game-winner, but not without a significant push from the hosts.
While killing a third penalty, Kenny Ryan cut in on a shorthanded breakaway, but Paterson made a sprawling pad save to deny Ryan on the backhand. Shortly thereafter, Jake Marchment got open in front for a deflection that skittered just wide of the post.
Indy broke through with 3:52 left, with a strong forecheck forcing a turnover. With Hervey and Kenton Helgesen both digging for the puck in the crease, Hervey reached around Paterson and poked the puck into the net to cut the Fuel deficit to one.
It was his first pro goal in his fourth game, returning to Indy after having played junior hockey for the USHL’s Indiana Ice. It was the second straight game with a point for the rookie from Adrian College.
“I don’t even know what to say. It’s something I’ve dreamt of for a long time, playing pro,” Hervey said of the first goal. “To do it in the city where I played my junior career is emotional and touching for me. I love this city, I love the fans. It’s definitely a good homecoming.”
Indy had four shots on a third-period power play in an attempt to get the equalizer. The Fuel also had another spectacular performance from Jake Hildebrand, whose aggressive style had him attacking pucks and shooters throughout the evening. His best save came in the third when he flashed a big pad save to deny Tyson Spink on the power play moments after Spink hit the crossbar with a shot.
Hildebrand stopped 36 shots in the Fuel loss in what will be his final start of the year, as coach Bernie John has been alternating goaltenders in back-to-back games. He said Eric Levine, the reigning ECHL Goaltender of the Week, will start Saturday’s finale in Toledo.
“Both goalies the last little streak, we’ve been playing really well,” John said. “Part of it is we’ve been giving them a day where they don’t have to go back-to-back, they can rest their bodies. That’s a huge thing. Eric’s been playing great, and he’s going to go tomorrow and give some energy.”
Despite the loss, the Fuel put forth a solid effort against the ECHL’s best team – and a team trying to keep its distance from the Allen Americans in the Brabham Cup race. The Walleye will clinch with anything other than a regulation loss and an Allen regulation or OT win Saturday.
“Those guys are playing for something – that was one of their A lineups,” John said, pleased with his team’s effort and compete level. “You look at their roster, those will be playoff guys. They get a guy like Bonis who’s one of the best players in the league. The boys played hard, they worked hard. They’re not done, because Allen can still catch them. They want to be first overall in the league, but we’ll be ready to go up there. The boys have been competing.”
- Nolan Zajac (TOL) GWG/A
- Jake Hildebrand (Fuel) 36 saves
- Alex Wideman (Fuel) G
- Wideman was proud to set the Fuel single-season scoring record, but especially so for his family. He scored goals in back-to-back games this week. “I was pretty happy,” he said. “It was a tough week for my family – I lost my grandmother, so I was gone for a few days. I was glad to bring some joy and excitement to our family after a hard week. I was pretty pumped.”
- One reason for the Fuel’s recent surge has been strong play in their own zone. The Fuel held one of the league’s most explosive offenses to one power play goal in the final two periods, keeping structure and keeping the play to the outside. “Most of what they got in the second and third was some of the power plays they had,” John said. “Other than that, I thought we played pretty good D. We were keeping things to the perimeter, playing solid.”
- Hervey said it was special to score his first pro goal in the city where he played his junior hockey. Three of Friday’s five goal-scorers played junior for the now-defunct Indiana Ice – Wideman and Toledo’s Kyle Bonis. Shane Berschbach, another familiar face, had two assists for Toledo. Hervey went from the Ice to play at Adrian College, where he played in the NCAA Division III national semifinals weeks ago. It means a lot to him to represent his school. “It’s definitely been a rollercoaster of emotion. The seniors we had at Adrian, we put in a hard four years,” Hervey said. “We came up short every year in the touranment. Continuing in my professional career, representing that program, it means a lot to me.”
- Kenny Ryan had another solid game, assisting on Hervey’s goal to give him a four-game scoring streak. He has scored in eight of his last nine games, tallying six goals and seven assists in that stretch.
- Josh Shalla also had an assist and extended his scoring streak to four. It was his 60th point of the season – his 42nd with the Fuel after tallying 18 with Wheeling to start the season.
- Kenton Helgesen returned after a five-game absence and had an assist. He has now tallied points in six of his last seven games.
Josh Shalla-Kenny Ryan-Woody Hudson
Alex Wideman-Paul Zanette-Kenton Helgesen
Matt Rupert-Jake Marchment-Nick Bligh
Nick Mattson-Adam Phillips
Zach Miskovic-Chris Williams
Brandon Martell-Troy Vance
BU: Eric Levine
Scratches: Travis Armstrong, Michael Neal, Filip Rydstrom, Bryn Chyzyk (IR)
Next up: The Fuel travel to Toledo for Saturday’s season finale.