During his spectacular career, Evansville center Todd Robinson has three times been named a league's Most Valuable Player and five times won league scoring titles, and no one has scored more points in pro hockey over the last 14 years.
The Komets know if they can stop Robinson, or even hold him to one point in a game, they have a very good chance to win.
``Anybody who says they can keep him off the scoresheet completely hasn't looked at his career stats,'' Komets defenseman Brent Henley said. ``His sole mission is to get points, and you try to limit the number he does.''
Robinson, of course, knows this, too. If he can score, his team will likely win.
``We go out there and they know exactly what we're doing,'' Robinson said after Saturday's 5-0 win over the Komets. ``Both teams know each other inside and out, so it kind of comes down to whoever works harder wins the games, usually.''
Robinson has played 89 games against the Fort Wayne Komets, scoring 27 goals and 137 points. After so many games, there are no secrets, but there is a science to how each team tries to counter what their opponents are attempting. The strategy is so basic, neither side minds talking about it even though the teams have seven more games to play against each other this season.
``He's a big part of their team, and it's almost like scoring a goal if you keep him off the scoreboard,'' said the Komets' J.M. Rizk, center of the line that includes Stephon Thorne and Kaleigh Schrock that Fort Wayne always tries to use against Robinson's line.
Hoping they'll use their size and reach to take away space from the crafty center, the Komets also try to match the defensive pairing of Henley and Daniel Maggio against Robinson. Komets coach Al Sims said the defensemen and the center are mostly responsible for trying to keep Robinson off the scoreboard.
``We've played Rizk against him for the last two seasons, so he's pretty familiar with him,'' Sims said. ``What you try to do when you have a player as good as him is keep the puck out of his hands as much as possible. When he gets the puck and moves it to someone, we like to eliminate him so he can't get the puck back. Finish the check on him and come off the boards with him so that's as far as it's going to go.''
That sounds effectively simple, but Robinson is so good it's very difficult to make that work on every shift, and one opening is all he needs to create chaos for the defense. Robinson loves that part of the strategy, partly because he knows if he can get past Rizk and then Henley or Maggio to create a goal, the Komets don't have a better second option.
``They are amped up to try to shut us down and antagonize and get under our skin and do what it takes to win,'' Robinson said. ``Fort Wayne has a great tradition of winning, and it's because they have character guys who know their role. We get just as amped up coming in here to play.''
Robinson knows if he can beat Rizk, Henley and Maggio, he beats the Komets.
``If he can have some success against that line, then it has to make them rethink how they are going to match up against him,'' Evansville coach Rich Kromm said. ``Also, if we can get secondary scoring, then they aren't going to be able to key on one player.''
The Komets have had some success against Robinson in the past using players to shadow him. Winger and defensive specialist David Hukalo won a playoffs Most Valuable Player award in 2009 for helping hold Robinson to five points in the Turner Cup Finals. Hukalo was closer to Robinson than immediate family members during that series.
Cutting off Robinson allowed the Komets to also limit the offense of winger and goal-scoring king Robin Bouchard in that series.
The Komets have also improved playing defense against Robinson since Sims came back to Fort Wayne in 2007. During their matchups in the United Hockey League before 2007, Robinson scored 13 goals and 63 points in 40 games and was plus-11, which measures what a team is five-on-five when a player is on the ice. Over the last 49 games, he has scored 14 goals and 45 points and is minus-18.
The problem is keeping Robinson off the power play, which the Komets failed to do Saturday when he burned them to set up two Evansville goals in a 5-0 IceMen win. He's also a great antagonist and will slash and hack with his stick to trying drawing retaliatory penalties. The Komets do the same thing with him, figuring if they can get him off the ice, even if a Komet goes along to the penalty box, it's to Fort Wayne's advantage.
``When they do take a penalty, we definitely have to take advantage on the power play,'' Robinson said. ``We're obviously not the most talented team this year, but we have a bunch of guys who work hard.''
Robinson on a power play is three-times as dangerous as he is five-on-five because he has more room to operate with. The IceMen love to see him on the sidewall where he sets up the power play as the other four players rotate positions to create defensive openings which he can pick apart.
``One of the things you have to be careful of is he's very good at passing through people, and they could end up with a good scoring chance,'' Sims said. ``When he's on the power play, we try to leave him alone on the halfwall because if you attack him, then he passes and it's a 4-on-3. That's what he wants. He's still finds a way to get his points and finds a way to hurt you at times.''
Once the IceMen are on the power play, the Komets try not to chase Robinson.
``Shooting from there wouldn't be his best option, and that's not what he wants,'' Rizk said. ``He'll take the shot because he's a smart guy and he has to make something happen, but if you force him to make a pass he will and that's what he's best at.
``The way he uses the ice, he can pass the puck from any angle. One thing he does really well is adapt to pressure. He likes it. Most guys panic and throw the puck away, but he likes when you go to him because he'll drag you into him and then he can beat you with the pass.''
Some fans scream that the Komets should just plant Robinson against and wall and keep hitting him. Players are only permitted to check players who possess the puck, though, and Robinson is exceptionally quick to move the puck once it hits his stick.
``I hit him as much as I possibly can,'' Henley said. ``With that sustained success at that size (5-foot-10, 175 pounds), he's really, really good at not getting hit. If you take yourself out of position to try and hit him, he's going to make a play with the puck that's going to give them a scoring chance. You have to be careful.''
Rizk tries to be aggressive but also careful all the time against Robinson.
``You have to be physical on him on the initial part if I'm the first guy to go in after him, but then just keep an eye on him,'' Rizk said. ``He's good at absorbing the hit and making it look like he's staying on the wall, and the next thing you know he's beating you to the net. He knows that guys are going to come after him so he takes the hits, takes the penalties and then hurts you on the power play.''
Referees also understand the Komets want to hit Robinson and may be more aware to make sure the hits are exactly legal.
The best way to stop Robinson? Don't let him have the puck and keep his team penned into the defensive zone. Limit turnovers and loose pucks and make him play defense which he'd prefer not to.
But even that can be nerve-wracking because a mistake can lead to a quick Evansville rush up the ice. Robinson is covering the point, waiting for a chance to take off.
``The first games we played against him last year, I was very nervous,'' Rizk said. ``Everybody is warning you how good the guy is, but it only takes one good game to give you some confidence and help you realize you can do this. If the team wins, then you start to look forward to it. If you get him looking at you on the draw, rolling his eyes like, `I have to see you every shift now?' He knows we're out there to shut him down.''