The Journal Gazette
Saturday, January 08, 2022 11:30 pm

Goalie shines, offense erupts, K's wallop rival Walleye

Fort Wayne emerges from physical game with 3-1-1 record against Toledo

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

Something had been brewing all night between the Komets and Toledo Walleye, bitterest of ECHL rivals, and it began when the Walleye’s Butrus Ghafari flipped the Komets’ Connor Jones, WWE-style, as they tussled in the first period.

In the third period, with the Komets just having taken control, Toledo’s Mitchell Heard upended Dillon Hill, setting off a 10-player fracas. Shortly thereafter, Toledo’s Brandon Hawkins sent Fort Wayne goaltender Liam Hughes to the ice, prompting two power-play goals from Stephen Harper within 37 seconds for the Komets at Memorial Coliseum.

If you’re sensing a trend here – Toledo getting into penalty trouble – you’d be correct.

The Komets’ 4-1 victory saw them score on 3 of 6 power plays, as they put the memory of Wednesday’s brutal 7-2 loss to the Walleye at the Coliseum behind them.

Toledo (19-7-2), which came in on a 6-0-1 run, remains in first place in the Central Division. The third-place Komets (17-9-3) are three points back, 3-1-1 this season against the Walleye, and readying for another pivotal game 5:15 p.m. Sunday at the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio.

Given the way Saturday’s game ended, don’t be surprised if it’s another physical contest.

“Every single time you play Toledo, it’s something you have to expect,” Komets coach Ben Boudreau said. “I mean, both teams have a lot of pride, and both teams want to beat one another, and I think beating them on the scoreboard is what we’re looking to do. We’re not going in there looking to brawl; we want to score more than them and get back even in the standings. So our focus is on finding a way to win again and repeat our effort from tonight.”

Hughes, in his professional debut out of the University of Manitoba, made a number of scintillating saves. He stopped 26 of 27 shots, not allowing a goal until Brady Tomlak beat him off a rebound, during a power play, with 11 seconds left in front of 7,479 fans.

“We know we’re a good team over here,” Harper said. “Anytime our goalie plays like that, we think we’re going to win the game. We’ve just got to stay on course because we’ve got another big one tomorrow. Playing four games in five nights can be pretty tough, but we’ll be up for it.”

Hughes was the eighth goalie used in 29 games by the defending-champion Komets, who lost 5-4 at Cincinnati on Friday, when Mario Culina stopped 16 of 21 shots in his pro debut.

“After getting back late from Cincinnati, that effort was pretty impressive,” Harper said. “A lot of guys were tired on our team and I’m very impressed. With our goalie, too, with his first start, it’s pretty impressive what he did and I wish we could have gotten him the shutout. It was a really good team effort.”

Fort Wayne also got goals from Shawn Szydlowski and Matt Alvaro (power play), though Toledo’s goalie, Max Milosek, was infallible until the third period in his ECHL debut. Milosek had been 13-1-0 with a 2.01 goals-against average, a .929 save percentage and one shutout this season for Huntsville of the lower-level Southern Professional Hockey League.

“Top to bottom, I thought it was an excellent performance,” Boudreau said. “There was only one downer and that’s them scoring with 11 seconds to go in a great debut. I couldn’t be happier for Liam and I thought he deserved (the shutout). It’s almost a letdown feeling in that locker room because we really wanted to preserve the shutout, but in the overall scheme of things I thought we played great and responded with a great bounce-back win from laying an egg on Wednesday.”

The Mad Ants basketball team had played at the Coliseum earlier Saturday, losing 114-99 to Raptors 905, and there was only a window of 3 hours, 51 minutes between the end of that game and the beginning of the Komets’ warm-ups. The Coliseum changed over the facility for hockey in just 2:24.

During that time, the ECHL announced it had suspended the Komets’ Will Graber four games for his actions just after Friday’s loss. Graber, who has nine goals and 24 points in 19 games, playing as a defenseman and a forward, made physical contact with linesman Chad Fuller, pushing Fuller in the chest with his glove, just after the final whistle. A source confirmed Graber was upset about an icing that was waved off in the waning seconds of the game.

The Komets had played with only 16 players, two short of a full lineup, on Friday. Despite losing perhaps their MVP in Graber, the Komets had 18 players Saturday with Szydlowski returning from a charley horse, forward Tyler Busch from COVID-19 protocols and defenseman Matt Murphy from non-COVID illness. Forward Matthew Barnaby remained out (ankle/head) and the Komets played with only five defensemen, one fewer than is customary.

Early on, both goalies put on a show, making a number of sprawling saves on shots from close range and Milosek was the first to buckle, allowing a goal to Szydlowski on a shot from the right circle 4:20 into the third period, just after Fort Wayne’s Marcus McIvor got the puck past Milosek only to watch it carom off the post and away.

Szydlowski, who has three goals and nine points in eight games since re-signing with Fort Wayne, had missed the previous two games with his injury suffered in the 1-0 New Year’s Eve victory over the Iowa Heartlanders.

Alvaro made it 2-0 by redirecting a Zach Pochiro blue-line shot at 8:08, during a power play. Pochiro had three assists, and Harper had three points, as the Komets looked very different from how they had Wednesday against the Walleye.

“We didn’t play a committed game (Wednesday) and when I say ‘committed,’ I mean we were on our own schedules and we didn’t buy into any sort of game plan on Wednesday,” Boudreau said. “It was one of those dreary, January, Wednesday evening games. Then we came back (Saturday) and we were committed to playing the right way. We didn’t sacrifice defense for offense, we just stayed the way through 60 minutes and we found a way to score four goals in the third.”

Notes: The referee was Tyson Stewart. … For Toledo, Kyle Bonis, 32, came out of retirement to join the team this weekend. His 95 goals are third most in Walleye history. He was thwarted by Hughes on a breakaway early in the third period. … The Walleye played with four former Komets: Hawkins, Ryan Lowney, Randy Gazzola and Heard.


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