CINCINNATI – In their second season in the ECHL, the Komets were 36-24-12 – tied for the 10th-best regular-season record – and upset the defending champion Reading Royals in five games and took the Cincinnati Cyclones to six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
That was an improvement on the Komets’ first season in the ECHL, which saw them finish with a 33-35-4 record, 19th best in the league, and without a postseason berth.
In that respect, after the season-ending 4-1 loss to the Cyclones at U.S. Bank Arena on Tuesday, the Komets were able to proclaim this season was one of improvement.
There are teams in this league who also came from the Central League and still haven’t made the playoffs. It’s a different league. The organization is still adapting. We’re still adapting. It’s a step in the right direction and that’s what counts, goaltender Ben Meisner said.
It was certainly a tumultuous season, considering the Komets were .500 through their first 27 games, had upheaval in the locker room that led to a franchise-record 12 trades, and used a record nine goalies because of injuries, call-ups and poor play.
Among those traded were eventual MVP Mickey Lang, captain Nick Tuzzolino and fan favorite Mike Vaskivuo.
By his own admission, Fort Wayne native Gary Graham had to grow in only his second season as a head coach, his first with the Komets, and find the right mix of players to fit his systems and personality. Considering the Komets reshaped almost their entire roster after last season, parting ways with players who helped them to four championships between 2008 and 2012, that’s not exactly easy.
We basically had two players from last year’s team, (Brandon Marino and Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock), and that was the challenge in the offseason, Graham said. We rebuilt the entire team, and you bring guys in during the offseason and hope it works. We had some hiccups, some ups and downs, and we didn’t have the right chemistry.
But once we had the right culture – and we use those words all the time – but when we won all those championships, we had the identity and the core group of guys.
The Komets finished strong, going 8-2-1 and taking the eighth and final seed in the conference before ousting the top-seeded Royals.
It’s been a pretty neat journey that we’ve been on, going back to probably the beginning of the year, Graham said.
And in the blink of an eye, it’s through. So, it’s a time to heal the mind, heal the body. And it’s a time to reflect. We had a really good group of guys, really committed, and we did some fun stuff here over the last few months. A good little run here in the playoffs, playing better hockey and learning and growing from one another.
With 88 points in the regular season, Brandon Marino became the first Fort Wayne player to win a scoring title since Lonnie Loach in 1990-91. Marino also finished third in MVP voting. In the playoffs, Shawn Szydlowski was the star with six goals, which led the league through two rounds, and 11 points.
After going 14-6-2 with a 2.39 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage in the regular season, Meisner was 6-5 with a 1.91 GAA and a .932 SP in the playoffs.
This is one of the best groups of people I’ve been a part of. Not just hockey players, but people overall. That’s a big thing. You can be on winning teams and win a lot of games, but if the character isn’t there, it’s just not as much fun, Meisner said, adding the Komets have a strong nucleus of players for next season.
We went through a lot, this group. No one turned on each other. No one pointed fingers. We looked at ourselves in the mirror and tried to get better. At the end of the day, that’s all you can do. You just hope everyone has your back, and I think this group did. That’s why we were able to turn it around.
The Komets learned they must get bigger players, use a more physical style of play, be more consistent, have a better power play (2 of 32 in playoffs) and improve upon the home record of 16-11-9 in the regular season and 4-2 in the postseason.
We don’t gauge our season on making the playoffs or not. Especially in this league, you can’t do that because there were some very good teams that didn’t make the playoffs this year, Komets president Michael Franke said.
We started over this year. We had to clean the roster out. It was time last year. With the new coach this year, and the new players, we’re very satisfied with the way the season turned out.
From an enjoyment standpoint, I’m sure for the fans the first half wasn’t very enjoyable and then the second half was very enjoyable. For us, overall, we’re satisfied. But we’re never, ever really satisfied until we win it all. And that’s our goal.