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  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette The Komets open the playoffs tonight with plenty of balance, having six players with at least 20 goals, including 25 by Shawn Szydlowksi, right.

Friday, April 14, 2017 1:00 am

It's 'Cup or bust' time for Komets

Veteran team opens playoffs with unfinished business

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

ECHL playoffs

Who: Komets vs. Quad City Mallards

What: Central Division Semifinals

Series: Best-of-7

Game 1: 8 p.m. today at Memorial Coliseum

Game 2: 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Coliseum

Game 3: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Quad City

Game 4: 8 p.m. April 21 at Quad City

Game 5: 8 p.m. April 22 at Quad City*

Game 6: 7:30 p.m. April 24 at Coliseum*

Game 7: 7:30 p.m. April 26 at Coliseum*

*If necessary

As soon as last season ended, with a 6-4 loss to the eventual-champion Allen Americans in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, the Komets were already talking about the 2017 playoffs.

Those begin at 8 p.m. today for the Komets, who take on the Quad City Mallards in a best-of-7 series that starts at Memorial Coliseum, and the belief is that the nucleus' experiences over the last 19 months will drive Fort Wayne forward positively and forcefully.

“No matter what, whenever you get postseason experience, it helps. It definitely helps that we have so many guys back from last year,” said Kyle Thomas, one of 11 players from the 2016 playoffs.

“We obviously didn't quite reach our goal, but we carried that with us through the summer. Just like (captain Jamie Schaafsma) said when he re-signed, 'It's Cup or bust.' So, it's been a thing we've talked about all year. It's been a long season but the playoffs are finally here and it's time to show it.”

The Komets (45-19-8), who had the fourth best record in the ECHL and are the second-seeded team in the division behind regular-season champion Toledo, have won 15 of their last 20 games. Quad City (40-28-4), the third seed in the division, saw Fort Wayne go 8-2-2 against it during the regular season.

The teams met in a home-and-home series to complete the regular season and the Komets won 5-2 at Moline, Illinois, and 6-1 at the Coliseum on Saturday, but coach Gary Graham said not to read much into that because there wasn't much on the line. Plus, Mallards coach Phil Axtell, 30, has a 21-12-4 record since replacing Terry Ruskowski in January.

“You have a very hungry young coach in Phil Axtell and he's going to get his boys motivated,” Graham said. “You can't look at those last two games and think that's going to be the team that shows up here (tonight). If you start thinking that, you're already behind the 8-ball.”

The Komets and Mallards haven't met in the playoffs since 2003, when Fort Wayne won the Colonial Cup finals in the now-defunct United Hockey League to avenge losses to the Mallards in the 2000 and 2001 playoffs.

Quad City was the Komets' most frequent opponent during the regular season, even though 306 miles separate the Coliseum and the iWireless Center.

“It's going to be fun,” said Mike Cazzola. “We've just got to make sure we take care of ourselves and that we come prepared to play because that's a good team over there. (Those last two games) didn't dictate what the series is going to be. We know that. Playoff hockey is the best kind of hockey.”

If there's something that gives the Komets particular confidence, other than their league-best home record of 28-7-1, it's their balance. They have six players with at least 20 goals, led by Cazzola (30), Thomas (27) and Shawn Szydlowski (25), while the defense is strong and Pat Nagle and Garrett Bartus are arguably the best goaltending tandem in the ECHL.

“It's great knowing that every line can go out there and produce,” Thomas said. “It's not just that you have a shut-down line and a goal-scoring line and some other line. Every line we have is a threat and it's nice that when you come off the ice, you know that the next line going out there can do just as good a job as you can.”

Note: Trevor Cheek was returned by Tucson of the American Hockey League and should be available for Game 1 today.

jcohn@jg.net