A pivotal weekend started off in frustrating fashion for the Komets, who were short on bodies, built an early two-goal lead, then lost 5-4 to the Cincinnati Cyclones in front of a crowd of 5,136 at Heritage Bank Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Komets (16-9-3), who dropped to third place in the division, begin a home-and-home series with the first-place Toledo Walleye on Saturday at Memorial Coliseum.
The Komets played without Shawn Szydlowski (charley horse), Tyler Busch (COVID-19), Matthew Barnaby (ankle/head), Matt Murphy (undisclosed), D.J. King (leg) and Josh Owings (upper body), leaving them with only 16 players – two short of a full lineup – split into nine forwards, five defensemen and two goalies. Both of Fort Wayne’s goalies were rookie newcomers: Mario Culina, who stopped 16 of 21 shots, and backup Liam Hughes.
Culina, who was signed Friday, was 5-0-0 with a 2.20 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage for the Newfoundland Growlers in 2018-19, before he returned to college hockey for Brock University. This season for Brock, Culina was 5-2-0 with a 2.56 GAA and a .926 SP.
The Komets signed Culina and Hughes, who had been at the University of Manitoba, in the wake of releasing Bailey Brkin and Tommy Proudlock on Thursday.
If Hughes starts Saturday, he’ll be the eighth goalie used by the Komets this season in 28 games. That includes Samuel Harvey and Jiri Patera, who were expected to square off in the higher-level American Hockey League tonight for San Jose and Henderson, respectively, and Sean Bonar, who stopped 28 of 32 shots for second-place Cincinnati (18-11-1).
The Komets got a 5-on-3 power play 11:24 into the first period, when captain Anthony Petruzzelli drew a hooking penalty on Graeme Brown and a cross-check on Dajon Mingo. Fort Wayne’s Stephen Harper took a hooking penalty 33 seconds later, but the Komets still got a 4-on-3 power-play goal from Matt Alvaro, who redirected a Marcus McIvor shot.
Twenty seconds later, Fort Wayne’s Oliver Cooper netted a short-handed goal from 12 feet out for a 2-0 lead.
The Komets didn’t allow a shot on goal until 13:48, when Patrick Polino had an attempt from the left circle. That was stopped by Culina, but Justin Vaive scored a power-play goal off the rebound. And Polino scored on a shot from between the circles, tying it at 2 at 1:15 of the second period, on Cincinnati’s fifth shot.
The Cyclones took advantage of lax defense at 5:18, when Jason Tackett feathered a pass through the defense to an unguarded Lincoln Griffin for a goal and a 3-2 lead, and Bonar preserved it with stops of Kellen Jones and Shawn Boudrias on shots from point-blank range.
Griffin scored again, to make it 4-2 at 17:37, after Ginaluca Esteves stole the puck from Will Graber behind the Fort Wayne net. But Fort Wayne’s Zach Pochiro answered 2:01 into the third period by batting the puck out of mid-air, as he fell to the ice, after Bonar had come way out of his net and tipped it toward the ceiling.
Cincinnati’s Mingo made it 5-3 with a goal during a 5-on-3 power play at 11:27, but Fort Wayne’s Boudrias scored from the right circle at 16:53.