BLAKE SEBRING: Komets’ depth keeps stepping up during playoffs

Rookie winger Anthony Petruzzelli is one of several Komets role players who have stepped up consistently during the playoffs. (News-Sentinel photo by Blake Sebring)

As the Memorial Coliseum’s homemade fan sign says, a lot of little things add up to the big thing. Every player must contribute because, as Komets coach Gary Graham likes to say, there can’t be any passengers if the team wants to win a championship.

As they prepare for tonight’s Game 3 of the ECHL’s Western Conference Finals against Colorado, the Komets have had some amazing examples throughout the spring. Rookie Phelix Martineau signed out of juniors and boosted the offense, journeyman forward Justin MacDonald sat a lot of the season but helped turn the Toledo series around and rookie forward Anthony Petruzzelli has provided a huge impact with his battles along the boards.

During Sunday’s Game 2 in Colorado, backup goaltender Garrett Bartus won a critical game to even the series, and rookie defenseman Kevin McKernan came out of the stands without any warmup to play forward and change the tempo every time he hit an Eagles defenseman.

“To have a good team, you have to have depth,” Komets captain Jamie Schaafsma said. “It’s expected of them, though. We have high confidence in everyone who is playing or not playing. It’s no surprise to us because we believe in each other. Those guys have a job to do, to be ready at the drop of a hat and they’ve been doing a great job. It’s great to see those guys get those opportunities and see them shine in the moment.”

There have been a dozen times over the last two months when Graham has had to insert a player into the lineup because someone got hurt, suspended or called up. Each time, the thinking is the new player might fill in for a game until someone else comes back, except they earn more ice time than expected and at the end of the game the thought is, “Well, he can’t take them out of the lineup because they played so well.”

They’ve all stepped up to rescue the team and be the star during a given game. Half the lineup is still playing hurt, but the rookies and role players have built professional careers for themselves with their play.

All of this reminds Graham of his 2012-13 season in Pensacola, Fla., with the Southern Professional Hockey League during the NHL lockout season.

“We brought in so many guys out of nowhere that just completely changed the culture in our lineup because so many guys were called up,” Graham said. “We asked so many guys to play bigger roles than what they should be. We had great leaders just like what we have here, very similar in terms of that. The guys just loved being around each other and they just played for one another.

“When you get guys playing for each other and not just for a coach yelling at you, that’s when you can do something special. The group has to be tight. When they are playing for each other and they see what they are going through behind the scenes, when they see the sacrifice and they see what each other is giving, that’s when a group can grow during a playoff run.”

Pensacola won the championship that season, boosting Graham for his return home to coach the Komets, something he always dreamed of.

“The best thing is, the veterans believe in these guys and then the young kids believe in the vets,” Graham said. “There’s a trust factor going on. When I put out these guys –, MacDonald, Petruzzelli and McKernan — during a one-goal game against Colorado’s top line on the road, nobody’s even thinking about it. I don’t even worry about it. That’s a good feeling.”

That’s remarkable, but also nothing the Komets aren’t used to. They never had their best lineup on paper on the actual ice this entire season. Either Justin Hodgman was hurt, Trevor Cheek was called up, Cody Sol was hurt, Marc-Olivier Roy was called up, Ryan Culkin was hurt, Daniel Maggio was called up or Dennis Kravchenko was hurt. There was always somebody, usually at least two somebodies, missing.

Mason Baptista and Ryan Lowney were sitting in the stands during the season’s first month but started playing around November and the Komets would have been lost without them as they produced career-best numbers. There have been so many injuries, athletic trainer Matt Willett probably has blisters from working on the players.

There was one stretch when Shawn Szydlowski, Garrett Thompson and Baptista played as a regular forward line, but that lasted about a month. There have been so many changes, every forward just adjusted to playing with every other forward. There were left-handed players shooting off right wing, defensemen playing forward, forwards playing defensemen and almost every winger played center sometime. Everybody learned to improve on faceoffs.

Even during the playoffs, Graham is just rolling all 10 forwards shift-to-shift, and the next three guys are always up and ready to go.

“It’s such a hard game because guys are injured or whatever, but Gary has built this team with depth and we built the locker room,” Sol said. “The rookies have only been here a few weeks, but it feels like they have been here all year and they want to join with everybody else and help us work for each other.”

Everybody has had to step up, and everyone has.

“We’re not going to out-skill teams. We have to out-work them, out-will them,” Graham said. “As long as we’re willing to do that and understand that is what our makeup is, we give ourselves a chance every night.”

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of News-Sentinel.com. Email Blake Sebring at bsebring@news-sentinel.com.

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