There was a deep camaraderie with this season's Komets, a key reason the team was so successful in the face of obstacles during the regular season, and also why it was so confident a deep postseason run was in the cards.
That's also what made Tuesday's 3-2 loss to the Wheeling Nailers – in overtime, of Game 7 of the Central Division semifinals, at Memorial Coliseum – particularly painful for the Komets.
That they were attempting to repeat as Kelly Cup champions made it even more so.
“It's a tough pill to swallow. We had an incredible group of guys, and we cared about each other so much,” forward Oliver Cooper said. “Just to have it end like that, it's definitely tough. But these are friends for life, and this is a year I'm going to cherish for the rest of my life. I can't thank the guys enough for everything they did this year. It was one of the best years of my life.”
The Komets dressed 57 players this season, including 11 goaltenders, a product of call-ups, illnesses and injuries – much of which can be traced to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were raided by 14 different American Hockey League teams, got little help from their own affiliate, the Henderson Silver Knights, and rarely had a roster resembling the one they'd built last summer.
Still, the Komets went 40-25-7 during the regular season – the ECHL's sixth-best record – and hardened themselves to obstacles. They were often inconsistent, but almost always resilient, and that included a multitude of third-period comebacks.
The playoff series against the underdog Nailers typified the roller-coaster season. The Komets dropped the first two games at the Coliseum, 1-0 and 4-2; stole 2 of 3 in Wheeling, West Virginia, including one on a Mark Rassell overtime goal; and got Monday's Game 6 victory on Matthew Boudens' overtime goal at the Coliseum.
But Wheeling's Matthew Quercia's 15-foot shot in overtime Tuesday sent the Nailers to the Central Division finals against Fort Wayne's chief rival, the Toledo Walleye.
Despite the heartache, the Komets still felt it was a successful season, given all the obstacles.
“We'll take a few days to look back on it, but right now we're pretty happy with how it went,” captain Anthony Petruzzelli said. “Unfortunately, we came up short of our goal, but overall I thought the boys battled really hard throughout the year. I think we had something crazy, like almost 60 guys come in and wear a Komets uniform this year. That's not easy. For the guys that were in and out of the lineup every night, and were here all year, I'm really proud of everything they've done.”
There could be massive turnover this offseason. The Komets don't own the rights to NHL- or AHL-contracted players such as league MVP and leading scorer Will Graber, Lynden McCallum or Adam Brubacher. Willie Corrin has said he's retiring, and others, perhaps Shawn Szydlowski, will follow suit. Goaltender Samuel Harvey, who stopped 91.3% of the shots he faced in the playoffs, and Rassell are among those certain to get AHL looks.
“We've got a good core here,” Petruzzelli said. “I'm sure there are a lot of guys who are going to take a little bit of time to talk with their families and see what their next move is, but we have a tight-knit group here and a lot of guys I'm sure will be back, and we'll be even stronger next year.”
Perhaps the biggest question is what will happen with coach Ben Boudreau, whose contract is expiring. Boudreau, 37, is 100-64-20 over three regular seasons, has made the playoffs twice (and probably would have a third had there been a 2020 playoffs), has a 12-8 playoff record and won the Cup.
Last season's contract renewal dragged out through the summer, – Komets management won't want another late start putting together next season's team – and Boudreau should get looks from higher-level teams. If his father, Bruce, returns as coach of the Vancouver Canucks, it'll bear watching if Ben could land in their organization.
Ben Boudreau said he wanted to “put a culture in place” when he ascended from assistant to head coach in 2019 and believes that's happened.
“I thought we established that in the first year, I thought we followed up on that in the second year and became champions, and I thought our group exuded that in the third year,” he said. “Ultimately, we fell short of our goal (this season), but I'm extremely proud of what we've accomplished over the last three years as an organization, as a team, and as a group of individuals, too. ... It's tough to win it all, and you can't do it every year.”
Notes: The Komets' end-of-season party and jersey auction is 7 p.m. today at the Coliseum Expo Center. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. It's free for season-ticket holders, $5 for others. Proceeds benefit local charities. ... Harvey has joined the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, ironically the Nailers' AHL affiliate, who were a man short because of an injury with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
1. Monday: Matthew Boudens' overtime goal at Memorial Coliseum sends the Komets into Game 7 against the Wheeling Nailers
2. Friday: Mark Rassell's overtime goal at Wheeling, W.Va., in just his fifth pro game, cements a 4-3 victory and ties the series at 2.
3. March 26: Will Graber cements his bid for league MVP by scoring two goals in the span of 25 seconds – both with the goalie pulled for an extra attacker – and Oliver Cooper nets the overtime winner in a 5-4 victory over the Kalamazoo Wings at the Coliseum.
4. Dec. 27: Komets score five unanswered goals, with a makeshift lineup, to defeat Cincinnati 5-4 on Shawn Boudrias' overtime goal at the Coliseum.
5. April 9: Lynden McCallum has a hat trick and Anthony Petruzzelli three assists, as the Komets defeat Kalamazoo 5-4 on the road to clinch a playoff berth.
6. Dec. 19: Former captain Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock comes out of retirement – for one night because the Komets are short-handed – and even mixes it up on the ice while playing a regular shift in a 5-3 loss to Cincinnati at the Coliseum.
7. Dec. 10: Shawn Szydlowski returns to the lineup, after offseason back surgery that could have ended his career, and the Komets beat the Kalamazoo Wings 3-2 in Michigan.
8. March 2: Defenseman Connor Corcoran's hat trick propels the Komets to a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Tulsa Oilers at the Coliseum.
9. March 9: Samuel Harvey has a 34-save shutout, and the Komets pound their newest rival, the Iowa Heartlanders, 6-0 in Coralville, Iowa.
10. Feb. 4: Komets score six unanswered goals, and go 3 for 6 on power plays, in defeating the Adirondack Thunder 7-3 in Glens Falls, N.Y.