Bailey Brkin went from seldom-used third-string goaltender to the Komets' No. 1 in the blink of an eye, but it hasn't altered his approach. The last couple of years have been about staying mentally sharp, and this has been no exception for Brkin.
“It definitely didn't change my mentality,” Brkin said, heading into the Komets' New Year's Eve game at Memorial Coliseum against the Iowa Heartlanders. “My approach to the game is always going to be the same; I'm just going to go out there and stop the puck and make it as easy as possible on the team and give my team a chance to win.”
Brkin ascended the depth chart when Samuel Harvey was called Monday to San Jose of the American Hockey League and Jiri Patera went to Henderson. Brkin, who hadn't played since his Fort Wayne debut Dec. 4, was thrust into action Monday night as the Komets rallied from four goals down to defeat Cincinnati 5-4 in overtime.
Heading into Friday, Brkin was 1-1-0 with a 2.93 goals-against average and a .880 save percentage for Fort Wayne. He, like the rest of the Komets, was adjusting to having a new-look lineup after Matthew Boudens, Will Graber, Blake Siebenaler, Stephen Harper, Drake Rymsha and Connor Corcoran were lost to AHL call-ups this season.
“For us on defense, (coach Ben Boudreau and assistant Olivier Legault) have been doing a great job of integrating guys into the team and showing us how to do stuff. They've been doing the extra work,” Brkin said. “I've been talking to (defensemen), too, just going over simple stuff like knowing where to take a shot or (cover) a pass on a 2-on-1, just little stuff like that, and what to do when I'm playing the puck, as well.
“Everybody at this level is a good player, it's just small, little minute things that help us be a better group.”
If it sounds as if Brkin, 22, is particularly embracing the pressure and strategy of netminding at this level, you'd be correct. He was well regarded in juniors – 17-8-3 with a 3.37 GAA and a .885 SP for the Ontario Hockey League's Soo Greyhounds in 2019-20 – but he didn't play last season because of the pandemic
“It was definitely a little bit stressful,” Brkin said of the 18-month layoff. “I'm so used to leaving every August to go play hockey, so it was a little tough for me mentally to just to be in that head space of staying in northern Alberta where it gets dark at 3 o'clock (in the afternoon) and the sun doesn't rise until God knows when. It was a little bit of a challenge, but it really felt nice when I got back on the ice and just got to playing hockey again.”
Though he was slated to join the ECHL's South Carolina Stingrays last season, former Komets goalie Zach Fucale was assigned there, and Brkin never got the chance. He began this season with the Southern Professional Hockey League's Quad City Storm, going 8-1-1 with a 1.79 GAA and a .937 SP, and joined Fort Wayne on Dec. 1. (Brkin's closest friend from home, Braedyn Funke, is a goalie at Indiana Tech.)
“It was definitely a nice feeling coming back and playing some high-level hockey against really good players, but it was definitely a change (being in the ECHL),” said Brkin, who was called from Fort Wayne to the AHL's Utica Comets to back up one game Dec. 17.
This week, the Komets signed another goalie from Quad City, Tommy Proudlock, to be Brkin's backup.
Brkin's early success has epitomized this season for the Komets, who went into Friday 15-7-3, and on a 5-1-1 run, despite the continually changing lineup.
“I honestly believe if we can just get the right group of guys, every game is going to be winnable for us,” Brkin said, “just because no matter what, somebody is going to step up at the right point and everybody is going to be doing their jobs the right way.”
Note: The Komets will hold a Martin Luther King Jr. night Jan. 14 at the Coliseum. The team will wear special MLK uniforms, against the Indy Fuel, that will be auctioned off to benefit Healthier Moms and Babies, an organization whose goal is to reduce infant mortality and improve the outcome of pregnancy in Allen County by offering services to low-income, high-risk pregnant women and their families. The night is sponsored by CareSource. The uniforms are purple, black and white and recognize June 5, 1963, when King spoke in Fort Wayne at what had been the Scottish Rite Auditorium.