There were two great quotes that came out of last spring's Fort Wayne playoff run to the Central Hockey League championship. One was from Missouri goaltender Charlie Effinger and one was about him.
"Their leadership and their core guys have a lot of character, and you can see the fire in their eyes when they come to the net," Effinger said after the Komets beat him one game. "As a guy who likes to compete, it energizes me. I love to see that."
After the Komets survived a Game 7 against the Effinger and the Mavericks, defenseman Brent Henley said, "I can't say enough about Effinger. If they had had a regular goalie in, an average goalie ... but he was fantastic. I wish him nothing but the best, and I hope I don't have to play against him again."
That goalie, the one with fire in his eyes that no one wants to compete against, showed up Saturday night, now wearing a Fort Wayne uniform. When the Komets absolutely needed him, Effinger made 43 saves as the Komets beat Gwinnett 1-0 in a game they had to win. Sure, it's only six games into the ECHL season, but another performance like Friday's 4-2 non-competitive loss to the Gladiators would have started everyone, including the 7,207 Memorial Coliseum fans, raising lots of doubts.
So how did Effinger handle all that pressure? With a joke, of course.
"I'm kind of used to facing 40 or more shots in this building,'' he said with a big grin.
After the game, everyone could laugh and relax a bit. The real Komets showed up, at least defensively. The best two ways to slow down a faster team are to continually belt them along the boards and keep the puck away from them, and the Komets did both Saturday night. Every time the Gladiators got too many offensive chances, Effinger just covered the puck for another face-off to kill the momentum.
The defense made sure Gwinnett didn't get too close to Effinger and cleared the few rebounds he gave up to make sure there were no second chances. It was an excellent team effort the night after the Komets looked foolish trying to play as individuals.
"We decided before the game that it was going to be a tight, low-scoring game," Komets coach Al Sims said. "We were going to try to win the game 1-0, and I didn't think that would come to fruition but obviously one guy took that comment seriously, and that was Charlie. He's the most important guy to do that.''
With Chris Auger out for the season with a knee injury and Eric Giosa sitting for a while with a high ankle sprain, the Komets lack the offensive firepower they thought they'd have plenty of. They'll still be competitive every night because of their goaltending, even with Kenny Reiter spending unspecified time on a call-up to Bridgeport of the American Hockey League. Marco Cousineau and Effinger give the Komets a netminding duo that can compete with any team in the ECHL.
They might have to win a few more games 1-0 for a little bit until Giosa heals and another forward can be found to fill in for Auger, but Fort Wayne has always been known for defense anyway. Even without a lot of goals, no fan can say any of the first six games have been even a shade dull. A super-sized ECHL with loaded talent because of the NHL lockout has been a blast to watch every night.
After losing to Kalamazoo 4-1 on opening night, Effinger couldn't wait for another chance. This time he didn't jump at the puck or race out to challenge every shooter, but provided the calm and hot glove his teammates needed. They gained confidence off of him.
"That's been an emphasis for me in the last two weeks,'' he said. "Sometimes as you get your way back into the season you have some anxiety and you want to try to do it all. You have to take a deep breath and let the game come to you. It was fun to compete again in this building and find a way to win.''
It's that kind of fire from Effinger that can help make the Komets a team opponents would rather not face again.