It was a wild 2021, one that saw the Komets power through the pandemic to play when 12 ECHL teams opted out, then win the Kelly Cup last summer.
And the year ended with a 1-0 victory Friday over the Iowa Heartlanders at Memorial Coliseum – a game that was highlighted by a whopping 17 shot blocks for Fort Wayne, including eight in the third period. That certainly aided goaltender Bailey Brkin, who stopped all 14 shots that made it to him, for Fort Wayne’s third shutout of the season and the second against the expansion Heartlanders.
"It’s a simple thing that you don’t need any special skillset to do,” forward Anthony Petruzzelli said of blocking shots. “We’ve talked about it and everybody on the team can buy in. It’s not always the most fun thing to stand in front of a shot like that and have to wear a slapshot, but you do it for the betterment of the team and it helps us defensively.”
The most key sequence of shot blocks came in the third period, as Fort Wayne was clinging to the lead Matthew Barnaby had given them by redirecting a Chays Ruddy shot in the second period. Iowa’s Shane Kuzmeski skated out from behind the Fort Wayne net, trying to take advantage of Brkin being sprawled on the ice, but Ruddy blocked two Kuzmeski shots to preserve the lead and Fort Wayne (16-7-3) improved to 6-1-1 in its last eight games.
“I thought we did everything well, except for the power play (going 0 for 3). We knew that we had one game this weekend, so we gave everything and completely emptied the tanks,” Komets coach Ben Boudreau said. “We were very selfless when it came to sacrificing our bodies and helping Bailey out. And I thought that was our most complete game, just 60 minutes start to finish, and just playing the same way in a committed system. And it paid off.”
A crowd of 9.463 was on hand, the largest at the Coliseum since a sellout of 10,477 on July 2, when the Komets captured the Kelly Cup with a 2-1 victory over the South Carolina Stingrays. The Komets are 43-17-5 in New Year's Eve games at the Coliseum.
But it wasn’t all good news for the Komets, who lost D.J. King to a lower-body injury in the first period. He was sent to a local hospital and the Komets fear it will be a long-term injury. Shawn Szydlowski, who had offseason back surgery, also went down in the third period after he was checked from behind, though he returned for one shift and the team said he had a charley horse.
For Iowa (9-15-4), goalie Corbin Kaczperski stopped 32 of 33 shots. His team was 0 for 2 on power plays.
“Guys were buying in and we played playoff hockey,” Boudreau said. “It was a great, intense atmosphere and I thought the guys really rose to the occasion. It was just a really committed game plan by the guys from top to bottom, and we found a way to squeak one out.”
Fort Wayne is 2-2-0 against Iowa, including a 24-save Jiri Patera shutout Dec. 3. (Samuel Harvey had the Komets’ other shutout this season, stopping 39 shots against Toledo, on Nov. 13.)
The scoreless first period – Fort Wayne had 10 of 16 shots – was marked by how many quality chances the Komets had but failed to score on, including two Szydlowski opportunities from point-blank range. The Heartlanders thought they’d taken a lead when Cole Stallard scored off a rebound at 13:47, but referee Trevor Wohlford waved it off because Kaid Oliver had interfered with Brkin.
Instead, it was Fort Wayne that opened the scoring 2:37 into the second period, when Barnaby tipped a Ruddy blue-line shot. The Komets outshot the Heartlanders 15-2 in the second period.
“Defensively, overall, we played a really solid game,” Petruzzelli said. “Brkin did a good job making that first save and our defensemen did a good job of keeping the second-chance opportunities out. So that definitely helped us out.”
Notes: Fort Wayne’s Connor Jones returned after missing six games with a wrist injury. He’d missed nine of 10 games, including time out with COVID-19. … Iowa’s Derek Whitmore, 37, hadn’t played since 2018 with Reading. A former NHL player with the Buffalo Sabres, he’s an assistant coach with the junior-level United States Hockey League’s Chicago Steel and was brought in because the Heartlanders were short on bodies.