After watching Brandon Marino, Scott Fleming and Chris Auger net as many goals as a dead man over the course of the first two ECHL playoff games against Cincinnati, Fort Wayne Komets coach Gary Graham searched for a solution and tweaked his team's lines.
If Thursday's game was any indication – at least the latter part of that game – the strategy worked.
“I liked the way that the forward lines looked tonight,” Graham said despite the Komets' 3-2 loss in double overtime. “I thought that it got better as it went on, and I expect it to get better (in Game 4).”
Graham adjusted his left wings and paired Mike Embach with Marino and Fleming. For the first 40 minutes of hockey, the move didn't seem to provide much of an impact. The Cyclones outshot Fort Wayne 23-17 over the first two periods and held a 2-0 lead, but something transformed that particular line entering the third period and the Komets appeared to be a completely different hockey team – at least offensively – from that point forward.
“We practiced with (the new lines) all week, but until you get into a game and get the chemistry going, I thought that was part of the early (struggles) too,” Graham said.
In the third period, Fort Wayne outshot the Cyclones 20-3 and ultimately dominated their zone with a 51-36 shot advantage for the game.
Marino, Fleming and Auger totaled just four shots on goal in the Komets' 5-2 loss in Cincinnati last Saturday, but the new line exploded for 13 shots on goal Thursday, including a goal from Embach to tie the game midway through the third period.
“The first two periods, everyone was kind of flat, it wasn't just our line,” Marino said. “In the third period, we started picking it up and guys got going and moving our feet. I thought in the third period and both overtimes, we controlled the play for the most part.”
Entering the ECHL playoffs, Komets wing Shawn Szydlowski probably wasn't at the top of the opposition's concerns when it came to devising a defensive strategy. The 23-year-old had scored just 11 times in 63 regular-season games, but eight games into the postseason, there aren't many more potent Komets than Szydlowski, and his coach is taking the blame for any not recognizing his skill set earlier.
“To be honest with you, a lot of (his lack of production) has to do with me,” Graham said. “I didn't have him in a good role early on. I didn't know quite what type of player that he was when I got him. We kind of had a coming together as the season went on and we started to figure out how to push each other's buttons the right way.”
Whatever “button” Graham is pushing, he needs to continue to do so. Szydlowski scored his fourth goal of the postseason Thursday and was just one shot on goal (six) behind team leader Matt Carter.
“I got a lot of confidence in the second half of the season,” Szydlowski explained. “And nothing gets you fired up like playoff hockey and I like to play big in these big games.”
Szydlowski gave the Komets a ray of hope as they looked lethargic in digging themselves a 2-0 third period hole. He took a pass from Jordon Southorn early in the third period to cut the deficit in half.
“This is probably the first team that I've ever played on where I honestly don't mind who I play with (along a line),” Szydlowski said. “Out of all the teams that we've played this year, I think that we have the most depth out of anyone that we've seen. The skill, the physicality, all of that.”
Icing the puck
If Fort Wayne has any hope of evening its semifinal series with Cincinnati at two games apiece on Saturday, it better not have a slow start as it did Thursday. The Cyclones are 5-1 when leading entering the third period.
In particular, Cincinnati is effective in the second period, where it has outscored opponents 13-5.
“We were flat the first two periods,” Graham said. “We stood around and admired them and didn't get our game going until the third period.”
Cincinnati is 5-2 this postseason when scoring first.
… Cyclones forward Byron Froese is erupting into a one-man wrecking crew this postseason. He notched his third multipoint game of the playoffs Thursday, as he recorded assists on each of the Cyclones' goals. He has totaled 12 points in nine playoff games this spring.
… The Komet fans certainly got their money's worth out of Thursday's game. Not only did Fort Wayne rally to tie the game in the third period, but with the game ending 11:25 of the second overtime period, it the fifth-longest playoff game in team history.