The Indy Fuel have built a roster with a lot of experience entering the 2017-18 season.
But one of the youngest players helped steal the show Saturday night in the team’s home opener.
Making his first professional start, goaltender Matt Tomkins stopped 29 shots – and then gloved three more in the shootout – to backstop a 3-2 Fuel victory over the Tulsa Oilers at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum.
“It was huge,” Tomkins said. “I was very fortunate to get a win in my first start at home in front of a great crowd in an exciting game.”
Tomkins credited the Fuel defense.
“They did an excellent job tonight,” he said. “I thought my job was pretty easy. They kept shots outside and minimized chances. They did their job, and made my job very easy.”
Alex Wideman scored the lone goal in the shootout, while the Fuel’s special teams were again a difference-maker in the victory, as both regulation goals came on the power play. The victory came in front of a large and energetic crowd of 5,337.
“We definitely wanted to put on a good show for our fans,” Wideman said. “We have great fans and we like to fuel off their energy. One of our big goals was to score first. We didn’t, but we battled back and got two big points.”
The Fuel did surrender the first goal midway through the second, but responded to take a 2-1 lead before Alaska’s Joey Sides tied the game early in the third.
Tomkins is a rookie from Ohio State who signed with the Rockford IceHogs in the offseason and was assigned to Indy. He was making his professional debut after having a strong 2016-17 with the Buckeyes. He made 29 saves, including 14 in the third period and two more in OT.
While it was his first game, he’s had plenty of opportunities to impress. He showed it Saturday, outdueling old friend Jake Hildebrand, who made 41 saves in the Tulsa goal.
“I saw him in Traverse City, and he’s been nothing but cool and calm,” Fuel coach Bernie John said of Tomkins’ play with the Blackhawks in the summer rookie tournament. “He was great there, along with (Collin) Delia. Here, he’s been a pro, practicing every day, working his butt off. He’s been great. It’s good for him to get a win. He didn’t get tested a lot in the first, but he started to get some action in the second and the third and he was up to the task. In the shootout, he made some key saves to clinch the two points for us.”
Indy is now 1-1-1, getting this victory two razor-thin losses in Wichita last weekend. The Fuel head back to the road next week for three games against the Florida Everblades.
“We came off a tough weekend in Wichita where we thought we deserved better,” Tomkins said. “The biggest thing tonight was getting that first win out of the way and building off it.”
Not only was the power play key, scoring twice bridging the second and third periods, but the Fuel’s PK remained perfect on the year. Indy killed off six Tulsa penalties, including 86 seconds of 4-on-3 to end overtime.
“We came off a great start in Wichita with our PK,” Tomkins said. “We put a lot of time into that in practice. It’s a byproduct of us being confident and knowing what we’re doing out there.”
The Fuel allowed just one shot on the overtime kill – one from Tulsa’s Connor Bleackley – and kept the Oilers to the perimeter with their three penalty killers. Indy has not allowed a power play goal all season, but that was a critical one.
“The kill was great again. We’re 100 percent there,” John said. “The 4-on-3 was great. We kind of know what they like to do – we’ve seen that play when (Tulsa coach Rob Murray) was in Alaska, where they play catch behind the net and look for the one-timer. Our guys had great sticks.”
After Evan Richardson gave Tulsa a 1-0 lead, finishing a rush after a Fuel player went down behind the play, the Fuel responded.
With 1:22 to go in the second, Tulsa’s Joey Sides was in the penalty box for cross-checking, while Chris Joyaux was sent off for elbowing, giving the Fuel an extended 5-on-3. They only needed 20 seconds before Nolan Descoteaux set up Geoff Walker for a left-circle one-timer, which Walker hammered into the net.
Twelve seconds into the third, with Joyaux still in the box, Ryan Rupert accelerated across the blue line and wired a shot from the high slot past Hildebrand’s pad to give Indy a 2-1 lead. Indy is now 30 percent on the power play this season, with five of the team’s eight regulation goals coming with the man advantage.
“Good power plays start with a lot of work in practice and video,” Wideman said. “We’re watching a lot of NHL clips of good power plays. We’re just trying to focus on quick movement and getting pucks on net. You can have really good movement, but if you don’t shoot the puck, nothing’s going to go in.”
Just over two minutes after Rupert’s goal, Tulsa’s Joey Sides got to a rebound and pushed the puck – and an opposing player – across the line to tie the game.
Tulsa came in waves in the third period, but Tomkins made 14 saves. Meanwhile, the Fuel nearly took the advantage on a couple of occasions – and did put a puck past Hildebrand when Robin Press went on an end-to-end rush, but the whistle blew before he could stash the puck into the net. Indy had to kill an elbowing penalty to Garrett Clarke midway through the third to maintain the advantage, with Brandon Anselmini making a diving play down low to prevent the Oilers from setting up a back-door play.
That was indicative of the night, which began with the Fuel poke-checking their way into frustrating Tulsa’s attack in a scoreless first period, and continued as the game went on.
“Tonight, we had really good sticks,” John said. “‘We had really good stick on puck, sticks were in lanes, they weren’t letting passes get across. They’ve been buying in.”
In the shootout, Wideman scored on a deke on his former teammate, which stood up as the game-deciding goal. Hildebrand stopped the next two, but Tomkins stuffed all three Tulsa shooters, making glove saves on each one.
“He’s seen a lot of my moves in practice,” Wideman said of Hildebrand. “Wo I thought I’d do one he’s never seen before and luckily it worked out for me.”
- Matt Tomkins (Fuel) 29 saves
- Nolan Descoteaux (Fuel) 2A
- Jake Hildebrand (TUL) 41 saves
- The Fuel have now won three straight home openers, beating Toledo, Cincinnati and now Tulsa. Indy is 3-1-0 in home openers, with two of the games being decided in shootouts.
- An energetic crowd of more than 5,000 fans was key, as well, for a team that had suffered two close losses in Wichita to open the year. “It was an unbelievable crowd. They were loud,” Tomkins said. “We definitely wanted to use that in our favor. That was huge for us and a big contributor to the win.”
- One of John’s priorities this year is to increase the shot total. Indy had 43 shots in Saturday’s game, including a number of Grade A chances coming off making the extra pass. The trio of Alex Wideman, Cam Reid and Geoff Walker had 12 shots between them. The Rupert twins and Nick Bligh had 11. “Hildy’s a tremendous goalie, obviously. He’s really good at seeing the first puck, so if you can get him moving side to side, we have a better chance of getting a goal,” Wideman said. “We got the better of him today. He played extremely well.”
- The last time Tomkins played an official regular-season game, it was for the Ohio State Buckeyes. He said the pace is quicker in the pros. “The transition has been a long time coming,” Tomkins said. “The past month, training camps. I’ve been able to adjust. The speed of the game is definitely a lot faster. Guys shoot from everywhere, so you’ve got to be on your toes. It’s more of a run-and-gun game, which is exciting for the fans and exciting for players, too.”
- All three Fuel lines provided shots and scoring chances. “It’s nice to have that depth – even some of the guys that sat out are guys that could be playing tonight for either our team or theirs.” John said, noting several recent arrivals from Rockford that juggled the depth chart. “That’s the nature of the business. … They came down, but everybody bought in and got the win. That’s what matters.”
- Nolan Descoteaux had the primary assist on both goals, setting up Walker’s one-timed howitzer for the first goal, and then dropping the puck to Rupert so he could gain the line with a full head of steam and score the second.
- Garrett Clarke drew a misconduct penalty midway through the second after Tulsa’s goal. On the play, a Fuel player went down behind the play, and he took exception. Tulsa did get a power play out of it, but it was killed off.
- Indy honored late anthem singer Eric Wickens before the game. Wickens passed away suddenly in August. Saturday’s anthem was a video recording of Wickens, a fitting tribute to a person whose voice captivated Fuel fans.
Alex Wideman-Cam Reid-Geoff Walker
Matt Rupert-Ryan Rupert-Nick Bligh
Tommy Olczyk-Reed Seckel-Radovan Bondra
Nolan Descoteaux-Nick Trecapelli
Brandon Anselmini-Robin Press
Garrett Clarke-Zach Miskovic
BU: Etienne Marcoux
Scratches: Jack Burton, Matt Johnson, Troy Vance, Andrew Schmit, Anthony Cortese (IR), Michael Neal (IR)
Next up: The Fuel travel to Florida for a three-game series beginning Wednesday. Indy will play its next four away from home