The Journal Gazette
Sunday, February 17, 2019 12:10 am

Looking at K's as season's biggest game looms

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

I believe Sunday is the most important game of the season so far for the Komets. Coming off their worst game of the season, an 8-2 loss to the Adirondack Thunder on Friday, we’re going to find out if they can rally on home ice or not.

A lot of eyes are going to be on Shawn Szydlowski, assuming he plays, and I believe he will. The ECHL’s reigning MVP and leading scorer was benched from Friday’s game and this is certainly a touchy issue.

On one hand, I can see where coach Gary Graham was coming from, in that Szydlowski had two assists in nine games and hasn’t necessarily looked his usual self this season.

I have been careful not to be too critical of Szydlowski for three reasons: he’s a notoriously slow starter; he’s coming off a serious back injury and we don’t really know just how healed it really is; and I’m cognizant that transitioning back from European hockey isn’t always easy.

On the other hand, Graham’s decision to sit such a popular player is risky because you’d better be sure it pays off. Right or wrong, the fans are going to side with Szydlowski, one of the best players in franchise history.

Szydlowski is a player that plays better when he’s angry, though, and I could absolutely see him unleashing his aggression on the Wheeling Nailers on Sunday.

Regardless of how you feel about Szydlowski sitting, Graham deserves credit for being willing to make such a difficult decision. How it plays in the locker room is going to determine the long-term effects of the whole narrative, though.

Right now, the Komets are talking a lot about how their defense needs to improve. It absolutely does. However, in my opinion, I just don’t see this ever being a great defensive team. I do see the potential for it being a very good offensive team. With players such as Szydlowski, Justin Hodgman (when he returns), Jake Kamrass, J.C. Campagna, and Brady Shaw, the Komets could overpower opponents if they figure out how to finish more often.

Believe me, I’m a guy who prefers to see teams go for 2- or 3-to-1 victories. But that’s not a realistic goal for the Komets this season. It’s just not. Focusing on the offensive capabilities would be more productive.

Along those lines, I get back to what I’ve been harping on since Day 1 of training camp: The Komets’ inability to break the puck out of their own zone. Whether it’s with defensemen or forwards, the Komets continue to not have reliable players to carry the puck up the ice, and that is killing them, be it through turnovers or off-kilter passing.

Don’t misinterpret; I’m not saying you punt on good defense. I’m just saying that trying to rank No. 1 in the league isn’t going to help you, not as much as trying to win games 5-3.

And special teams, well, they’re just the pits right now.

More than anything, the Komets need more intensity. They've relied too much on players such as Taylor Crunk to fire them up and intensity hasn't been sustained for entire games. It hasn't gone unnoticed that Cody Sol has fought each of the last two games. I believe a message is being sent that other guys have to step up. 

Also, I keep hearing a lot about how the Komets need to improve if they want to get an edge on the teams they’re battling with for third place in the Central Division – Kalamazoo, Indy and Wheeling.

Do they realize that they came in to Saturday just 12 points back of Toledo for second place in the division? Think about that. If they had won a handful of those games they’d squandered over the last month, they’d be fighting for second place with a Walleye team that just lost its best player, T.J. Hensick, to the American Hockey League for the season.

In other words, why have then been settling for a battle for third place when second place had been attainable?

That being said, the negativity surrounding the Komets right now is sort of unreal. I don’t see this team missing the playoffs. There’s too much talent for that. This team is still way better than Indy and Wheeling, in my opinion, and frankly I still think it’s better than Kalamazoo.

The problems do go back to the summer and recruiting, yes, but they made great pickups. The problem with those pickups is you have to bear in mind that they were available during the season for reason and those may have been inconsistent play or defensive lapses. I’m not saying the Komets can’t catch lightning in a bottle. They’ve done it before. But expecting them to win two out of every three games right now might be asking a lot.

There is an X factor and it’s this: A scout I trust told me this will be an especially strong year for players coming out of college and juniors and that the Komets will have a very good chance to get players to help them late in the season. They’ve proved themselves in the past at being particularly adept at getting such players, so maybe, just maybe, help will be on the way.

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