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Ben Smith

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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Goalie Nick Boucher and his Komets teammates open the second round of the playoffs Friday.

Period of adjusting is over

Six months along now, and Komets goalie Nick Boucher still sees that lost October night. He sits down on the bench and the mask comes off and he looks out at the emptying morning ice, and the sound of that night comes to him like the smack of a ruler slapping a guilty set of knuckles.

“Absolutely,” he says, when you bring it up. “They took us to school.”

“They” were the Rapid City Rush, and the occasion was opening night of the 2010-11 CHL season. The Rush were your defending CHL champs. The Komets were your three-time IHL champs. And on Oct. 16 a sellout crowd showed up at Memorial Coliseum to watch them have at it, filling the place clear up to all those intimidating banners stretching like laundry across the ceiling.

The Rush looked up at them, looked at the howling 10,480 in attendance … and proceeded to beat the home team like they were the Saskatoon Macaroons.

Rush 4, Komets 0 was the final. And, yes, it was indeed an education.

“Oh, definitely,” Komets coach Al Sims says. “We knew they’d be a strong team from the other league, but they really controlled the game and kind of dominated us. So it was like, ‘Wow, this league is a lot better than I thought, better than David (Franke) thought, better than anybody in the summer had thought.’ And that proved to be true.”

And because it was, there’s an odd debt of gratitude that must be paid now that it’s Fort Wayne vs. Rapid City again here at the other end of the season. The 4-0 lamination on opening night, after all, led to a 5-15 start for the Komets, which led to wholesale player moves, which led, eventually and not without some pratfalls, to the Komets finding their stride in this new league at precisely the right time. And maybe that doesn’t happen without the lesson of Oct. 16.

“Unfortunately, when you win a couple of years in a row, whatever league you’re in, you start to get that little bit of a hangover,” Boucher points out. “And unfortunately it took us so long to kind of get things going and play better hockey.”

He looks across the ice again.

“The one thing I’ve noticed most about this league is, we could show up last year and play OK and still win,” he goes on. “Part of it is because, being Fort Wayne, we were feared. Teams stepped on the ice and they were already down a couple goals. We had that going for us.

“The second thing is, teams didn’t compete as hard. Flint would show up or Dayton would show up last year and kind of just put their sticks on the ice and see what happened. Teams don’t do that anymore. If we don’t play well or we play poorly, we’re going to lose. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Colorado or you’re playing Quad City or Dayton, you’re just not going to win unless you play well. It’s just that much more competitive.”

And, slowly, the Komets got more competitive, too. Needless to say, they’re a vastly different team now than the one Rapid City handled with such disdain back in October; in March, the Komets flew out to Rapid City for the rematch, and although the Rush won again, 3-1, it was a 2-1 game until nearly the last minute. And the Komets outshot the Rush 37-26.

“We know we can play with them,” Boucher says.

The education continues.

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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