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Ben Smith

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K’s road to retribution begins in Illinois

It smells like retribution in here, all of a sudden. Who could have figured that?

But practice is over and the boys are grabbing their sticks and clomping off the ice, and here comes Komets coach Al Sims, stocking cap pulled low to ward off the chill. He talks like a Texas Ranger, when he starts talking. Or maybe a San Francisco Giant. Or maybe even a Kansas City Royal.

“This is a chance, with everybody back to 0-0, to start playing and show we are one of the better teams in the league,” he’s saying.

This from a guy whose team never had to show anything to anyone back in the day, when the Komets were the Yankees or Red Sox instead of the Giants or Royals. This from a guy whose team never knew what it was like to be regarded as just another club when it was winning three straight Turner Cups and ruling the IHL almost by divine right.

And now?

Well, not so much.

Now these Komets are the sixth seed in their division taking on the third seed in the first round of the CHL playoffs, and they are, until they prove otherwise, indisputably Just Another Club. The team they’re playing, Bloomington, beat them seven out of 10 times this season. It’s won the last four meetings, outscoring Fort Wayne 17-6.

“I think they’ve had our number the last few times we’ve played them,” winger Tab Lardner admits. “They’ve played us hard all the time.”

The Komets, on the other hand, still have to prove they can do that, and the last week of the season was a start.

First they beat Dayton 1-0, a total gut game won on dead legs at the end of a six-games-in-eight-nights stretch. Then they forced overtime against division leader Colorado before losing. Then they turned around and beat Colorado the next night.

“That really helped us out,” Lardner says.

“Maybe the best thing that happened to us all year,” Sims agrees.

The next best thing begins tonight, in Bloomington, because what maybe got obscured in the Komets’ IHL dominance is that stature is earned, not given.

Some people might have forgotten that at the beginning of the season, when they marched into a new league expecting, perhaps, that their six-decade legacy and three straight Turner Cups would carry some weight.

It must have been a shock to discover otherwise.

Rapid City walked into Memorial Coliseum on opening night like it owned the place, beat the Komets like they were, well, just another team, and off the Komets stumbled to a 5-15 start.

Tireless tweaking of the lineup by the front office helped them play 14 games over .500 since, and now come the playoffs – which are, yes, the best thing that could happen to them, because this is where they start to earn back their stature.

“I think for our team it’s huge,” Sims says. “We’ve been kind of, I guess, maligned for most of the season, mired in eighth place or ninth place or last place, with a 5-15 start.

“Although we recovered probably pretty well to finish above .500, we still never felt like one of the better teams in the league.”

This is their chance to feel that way. That it starts with Bloomington instead of Rapid City or Colorado is, everyone seems to think, a bonus.

“We’ve got so much better an idea of how they play,” Sims says.

“It’s a lot closer for us; we don’t have to travel for 20 hours like Dayton and Quad City do. We’re just five hours down the road.”

And the road leads, for the first time in a long time, to retribution, perhaps. Go figure.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648 or at the “Ben Smith” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net.

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