The Wheeling Nailers were playing their 16th game of the season. The Komets were playing their first.
Once the Komets got their legs under them, the difference was negligible tonight.
But the Nailers emerged with a 3-2 victory, decided in an overtime shootout at Wheeling, West Virginia, where the terrific goaltending for both teams stood out (and video highlights are above).
Wheeling’s Austin Fyten had the decisive goal, foiling netminder Stefanos Lekkas, who stopped 36 of 38 shots and 2 of 3 shootout attempts. Nailers goalie François Brassard stopped 40 of 42 regulation shots – only Brandon Hawkins and Shawn Szydlowski bested him – and he thwarted Hawkins, Marco Roy and Szydlowski in the shootout.
“We looked good in camp and you're excited and you just can't wait to get going, and then you kind of really think about it and go, ‘Yeah, the first weekend might be a little rough, just handling the puck and timing,’” Szydlowski said. “You could see guys were bobbling the pucks, but the effort was there. You can tell we’ve got a good team. Maybe the first weekend will be rough, but we still had fun. Regardless of only getting the single point (in the standings), I think tomorrow will be a different story.”
The Nailers (4-8-4), got regulation goals from Fyten and Patrick McNally, then faced their first shootout in 76 games as 1,004 fans looked on at WesBanco Arena, where the teams meet Saturday night.
The Komets, who had only 11 days of training camp and no preseason games to prepare for their opener, came out hitting – Justin Vaive and Szydlowski upending opponents in the opening minutes. But Lekkas was the pivotal player, as Wheeling had 10 of the first period’s 15 shots, thwarting Vladislav Mikhalchuk and Michael Pelech on shots from point-blank range, the latter blast getting halfway across the goal line before Lekkas kicked it away.
“We came out and the game speed was just a huge adjustment,” Fort Wayne coach Ben Boudreau said. “You could really see the timing was off on everything. You know, our brains were fatigued in the first period, but then we came in (for intermission) and regrouped.”
Lekkas came into the night with only one game of professional experience – he stopped 32 of 34 Wichita shots in the final game of last season on March 11, 2020 – and Fort Wayne’s other goalie, Louis-Philip Guindon, has never played a pro game.
“That's the one thing that we've always talked about is trying to make sure that we've got someone solid in the pipes and it's a big gamble when you bring in a relatively unknown guy, but we brought (Lekkas) in for a reason and he came in as advertised,” Boudreau said. “I thought he was our backbone in the first period, making some incredible saves, and I think he's going be great. Honestly, he gives a lot of guys confidence and it gives a coach a lot of confidence.”
Fyten opened the scoring, taking advantage of a failed Fort Wayne clearing attempt, by putting the rebound of his own shot into the net 42 seconds into the second period.
The Komets’ offense then began to find a rhythm, outshooting the Nailers 15-11 in the period, though Brassard stopped A.J. Jenks’ spinning shot from 15 feet out, Stephen Harper’s attempt from 8 feet, and a Roy wrister that caromed off the glove of a diving Brassard and then the goalpost.
Fort Wayne’s Hawkins tied it at 1, just after his team’s power play expired, by taking advantage of a Jenks screen and snapping the puck high on his former team.
The Komets had 10 of the third period’s first 12 shots in 4:40 of action, including a Szydlowski goal off a scramble in front for the puck, though McNally tied it at 6:18.
Fort Wayne outshot Wheeling 36-33 in regulation and 6-5 in overtime.