While riding the bus to Evansville this afternoon, the Komets are probably thinking, ``Thank goodness it's somebody else's opening night''
Despite great crowds, wonderful championship celebrations, plenty of nostalgia and thrilling banner raisings, the excitement of recent opening-night games ends before the opening faceoffs. The Komets were smoked for the third season opener in a row Friday night, losing 4-1 before 10,091 Memorial Coliseum fans. The Komets lost to Rapid City 4-0 two years ago and Evansville 5-0 last year.
This one was as strange as usual because defensively the Komets fell apart in front of goaltender Charlie Effinger, who was very acrobatic early to go into the second period with a scoreless tie. Then Kalamazoo scored four straight, and not necessarily because the Wings showed expert aim.
The first goal bounced off the shoulder of center Colin Chaulk and then off the knee of defenseman Daniel Nycholat before slipping behind Effinger, and two minutes later the second goal was screened by defenseman Tyler Butler, who was correctly trying to block the shot from the high slot. Butler also saw the third goal deflect in off the toe of his skate on a shot that was sliding wide, and later the Wings' Eric Kattelus swiped the puck off the stick of defenseman Ryan Hegarty 10 feet in front of the Fort Wayne net for a quick and easy fourth goal.
``I think the opening-night jitters are normal for young guys,'' Komets coach Al Sims said. ``I know Hegarty had the puck on his stick and the next thing you know it's in the net. It's a rookie mistake and something you have to live with until these kids get better. Hegarty came back and hit the crossbar and he almost came back and got that one back himself. Things like that won't happen a week or two weeks from now when we sit down with Hegs and show him some film and help him out a bit. He's a first-year kid and mistakes are going to happen."
Offensively, things were just as bad. While Kalamazoo was getting the offensive breaks at one end, the Komets could never seem to force one at the other. They just didn't get that many scoring chances, partly because the Wings played a patient, opportunistic road game.
Sure, the Komets were probably a little tight as many passes were just out of reach, but they also played a lot as individuals and settled for too many perimeter shots, allowing Kalamazoo goaltender Joel Martin to see everything. When the Komets did get a few chances, they often missed the net.
``I think there was a feeling-out process on both sides,'' Komets center Brett Smith said. ``They came out and got that fluke goal, and that gave them some momentum and gave us no momentum at all. We obviously weren't at our best. It's the first game, and if there weren't a couple of bad bounces it's a 2-1 game. We have to get the puck to the net and get some more chances.''
As an example, the Komets' best scoring chance of the second period came with two minutes left. Stephon Thorne's blast from the side deflected off linemate J.M. Rizk's skate and hit the outside of the goal post. The way the night was going, a similar shot by a Kalamazoo player probably would have deflected off the inside of the post and in.
Other than a first-period tussle between the Komets' J.M. Rizk and Kalamazoo's Justin Taylor, the home crowd didn't have too much to cheer after the opening ceremonies. The Komets finally broke through Martin on a third-period power-play chance when Brandon Marino knocked in a rebound off a Chaulk shot.
``We know it's going to be an exciting atmosphere here in Fort Wayne; we know it's going to be a battle,'' Wings coach Nick Bootland said. ``We play them 16 times this year, and we know it's going to be tight every single time we play them.''
It felt that way for two periods, but the second one decided the outcome and took all the energy out of the building. The Komets couldn't force a break to get everyone excited again.
``I think every home opener there's nervous excitement and you make some mistakes you normally don't make because of that,'' Sims said. ``It certainly wasn't the reason we lost, I don't think.''
Maybe, but next year the Komets might want to consider opening on the road and then coming back to play the first home game. They'll probably be a completely different team tonight in Evansville.
Icing the puck
The Komets were expecting two forwards from Norfolk of the American Hockey League but instead received forward Josh Brittain and goaltender Marco Cousineau, giving Fort Wayne the rarity of three goaltenders. Komets General Manager David Franke said earlier this week the ECHL changed its rules to allow three players to be placed on reserve, an increase of one. Those players can be activated at any time. The Komets have Cousineau, defenseman Scott Kishel and center Cory Schneider on reserve. ... The Komets also re-signed rookie defenseman Daniel Nycholat a day after releasing him. ... Longtime retired Komets office manager Flossie Zimmerman attended the game three weeks after suffering a broken hip. ... Former Komets Gerry Festa and Jamie Lovell were part of the championship-ring presentation before Friday's game. ... Each ECHL team is allowed 20 active players on the roster, but the Komets are going with 18 to stay under the salary cap. ... This was the 11th consecutive opening night that the Komets have drawn more than 10,000 fans. ... ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna attended Friday's game and will be at tonight's game in Evansville.