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BLAKE SEBRING: Hopefully new Komets now understand Toledo rivalry

Commentary

Komets goaltender Michael Houser forces Toledo's Shane Berschbach's scoring attempt away from the goal during the third period Saturday night. (By Blake Sebring of The News-Sentinel)

Sorry to the players, this is probably completely unfair, but it’s also the absolute truth about this Fort Wayne Komets season, and they need to hear it.

Everything you do for the rest of the season will likely be judged on your success or failure against Toledo.

Saturday’s 4-2 season-opening win was a good start this time, but two of the last three years the Walleye knocked the Komets out of the playoffs because they were faster, smarter and more disciplined. Basically, the Walleye won in part because the Komets committed too many unnecessary penalties and unforced errors. They couldn’t abandon their regular-season habit for taking penalties during the playoffs, and Toledo’s power play killed them.

And even worse, the players on those Fort Wayne teams always felt they might have been championship contenders if they somehow could just have gotten past the Walleye. They were bitter about the defeats because the Komets always felt like they beat themselves as much as the Walleye beat them.

Most of those mistake-prone players are gone now. The remaining ones hopefully have gotten the message. If not, it’s up to everyone else on the team to help them by taking their sticks and tomahawking them over the head until they do! Pound it into their melons!

Kidding, kidding, kidding.

Well, maybe not. If they can’t figure it out this season, we may need to try using multiple fans swinging sticks.

See, these losses have been very personal to Komets fans.

It’s not that Fort Wayne fans hate the Walleye (though they are plenty of hard feelings about the Toledo fans who can be obnoxious, especially in the Huntington Center). Actually, there is plenty of respect between the two franchises, usually because they know how hard it is to beat each other. It’s also because of the way each franchise operates so professionally, consistently fielding very good teams which is extremely hard to do in the ECHL.

Members of both team managements will deny it, but every player they signed over the summer was done with the expectation that they were playing a talent war with the other team. The Komets wanted to get faster, more athletic, more mobile this summer. They wanted more defensemen who could skate and move the puck to help the offense be more effective. They wanted to do that to counter what the Walleye have been doing the past three seasons.

This rivalry is great for fans who love to travel to road games, but it puts more pressure on the current players. A third playoff loss in a row to the Walleye would be unbearable. A victory over Toledo in the playoffs would feel exquisite!

But this rivalry in this regular season and these games are important. Because of the way the ECHL has set up its playoff format (spectacularly well!), there’s a pretty decent chance based on tradition and current roster quality that these two teams will meet again this spring in the postseason.

That’s all a good thing because the teams — including players, coaches and management — push each other to play harder, smarter and more tenaciously in every game. The teams rise to excellence and the winners succeed because they are willing to sacrifice and endure more, including by being more disciplined defensively and staying out of the penalty box.

That means every game you play, how you think about games against Toledo and even how you practice this season will be examined and every day should be a little bit about looking ahead to that match-up. Toledo is the Komets’ rival. Toledo will be your rival. It will be the game everyone gets up for — though it would be great if the ECHL could schedule the league’s two closest cities to play more than eight times. As they often said in the recent “Godzilla,” movie, “Let them fight.”

You will be judged as a team and maybe even as individual players on how you perform against the Walleye. Get used to it, accept it, embrace it. Deal with it.

Komets coach Gary Graham is exactly correct when he talks about how much better all the teams should be in the ECHL’s Central Division this season. Cincinnati is back in, Kalamazoo, Indy and Quad City should be better, and now Missouri pops in. But those teams are not Toledo. and to Komets fans, nobody else is as big as Toledo.

And that’s something you all deserve to know up front this season. Saturday was great for Komets fans, but the first game this season against the Walleye likely won’t be as important as the last one.

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

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