No one at Memorial Coliseum would deny it's been a trying season for the Komets. They didn't get off to a very good start, made 11 trades, brought back popular players Shawn Szydlowski, Mason Baptista and Craig Cescon from Europe, yet struggled with inconsistent efforts, turnovers and penalties into the penultimate week of the season.
But captain and team MVP Jamie Schaafsma, who has been to seven playoff finals and won four championships, believes the Komets' struggles will make them a formidable foe.
“When you go through those struggles and adversity during the year, I think it makes you a stronger team and I think our bond together as a team has grown over the last month or so,” said Schaafsma, whose Komets open the best-of-7 Central Division semifinals 7:30 p.m. today against the rival Toledo Walleye at the Huntington Center in Toledo.
“We've had a lot of (personnel) turnover this year, but now we know the group we're with and I like the feeling in the dressing room. I feel like the mindset is coming around and everyone is starting to be just all in for the Komets.”
The Komets ousted Toledo 4-2 in the Central Division finals last year, a monkey off the back of a Fort Wayne team that had lost two previous series to the Walleye.
The Komets (36-26-10) have eight players (Schaafsma, Szydlowski, Baptista, Marco Roy, Anthony Petruzzelli, Phelix Martineau, Cody Sol and Ryan Lowney) back from last year's series with the Walleye (40-23-9), which has six players back (Shane Bershbach, Dylan Sadowy, A.J. Jenks, Kevin Tansey, Ryan Obuchowski and Pat Nagle).
“This year is such a different dynamic because we have such a different team. They have a little bit of a different looking team, too, obviously,” Komets coach Gary Graham said. “At the end of the night, it's Fort Wayne and Toledo, and it's going to be an exciting series.”
While Toledo went bigger and more physical with its roster after last year, and Fort Wayne is smaller and faster, the regular-season series was still closely matched, except for the Walleye's 11-0 victory March 2.
The Komets went 5-4-2 and there were seven one-goal games.
“They're a team that we've had some back and forth with this year, but we've had some success as well,” Schaafsma said. “I think we're confident that we can beat them. (Our) team isn't overconfident, though, it's just that we've got to find a way to be consistent. This season, we've had our inconsistent moments.
“You're going to get the sense that everyone is all in for the team at this point, all the personal stats and all that get put aside. It's the time that everyone has to push for the team and come together here and try to do some damage here in the playoffs.”
Toledo has home-ice advantage, but both teams are 5-4-1 over their last 10 games.
Toledo has seven players contracted to either the NHL's Detroit Red Wings or American Hockey League's Grand Rapids Griffins, where defenseman Trevor Hamilton remained Thursday.
The Komets' playoff roster has three players on higher-level contracts – goalie Zach Fucale, forward Martineau and forward Matthew Weis. Martineau should return after Laval's season ends Saturday, but there's no telling when Weis could come back from the Chicago Wolves.
“We're not a team that's going to get a lot of reinforcements from anywhere. We have what we have, but I think we have some good pieces and we're getting healthier,” said Graham, who could have Cescon and Sean Flanagan back from injuries today.
Note: Cincinnati's Michael Houser was selected ECHL Goaltender of the Year, a season after he played with Fort Wayne. Idaho's Tomas Sholl was second and another former Komet, Sean Bonar, of Atlanta was second.
Komets vs. Toledo
Central Division semifinals
Game 1: Today, 7:30 p.m. at Toledo
Game 2: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. at Toledo
Game 3: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum
Game 4: April 19, 8 p.m. at the Coliseum
Game 5: April 20, 7:30 p.m. at Toledo*
Game 6: April 23, 7:30 p.m. at the Coliseum*
Game 7: April 24, 7:30 p.m. at Toledo*