During the Fort Wayne Komets' 62-year history, they've had to use an emergency backup goaltender plenty of times. City natives such as Chris Wright and Rick Wynn got a chance to show their skills in individual performances, and even trainers Joe Franke (1-0 Joe) and George Polinuk were called into action when there was a late call-up, illness or an injury.
But it's never happened when playoff positioning is so tight that the outcome of the season could be determined at any time.
A critical point like that happened Wednesday night when goaltender Ben Meisner had to leave against Orlando halfway through the second period with an accelerated heartbeat and dizziness. With Andrey Makarov called up to the American Hockey League, the Komets had to rely on emergency backup Larkin Saalfrank the rest of the way.
Considering the circumstances, Saalfrank, 22, played fine and his teammates played better, but Orlando still won 5-4 before the season's smallest Memorial Coliseum crowd. The loss keeps the Komets in ninth place in the ECHL's Eastern Conference and out of playoff position.
Saalfrank is a former IPFW club team goaltender who works out with the Komets in the summer and played in an exhibition game with them last season. After training camp in Fort Wayne this year, he had appeared in only one game, a December relief appearance in the Class A Federal League.
After earlier this month taking a job as director and head instructor of The Goalie Academy's operation in New Jersey, Saalfrank drove all Tuesday night to arrive in time for Wednesday's pregame skate.
"I thought Larkin did a good job,'' Komets coach Gary Graham said. "I thought the boys battled and competed. I can't fault the guys' work ethic at all. We had two little breakdowns that they buried on. In this one season, I've seen every thing you can possibly imagine, I think.''
After a whistle at the other end of the rink, Meisner skated to the boards and appeared to catch his skate in a rut in the ice on the way back. He fell face-first, got up, skated a stride or two and fell again. After crawling to his crease, he was able to wave at the Komets' bench and athletic trainer Zach Creighton rushed onto the ice.
Meisner was helped off the ice and into the Komets' dressing room, meaning Saalfrank had his chance of a lifetime.
"Once I got out there, I just told myself I was just having fun with the guys, and it's just another game,'' he said. "That calmed me down a little bit and I was able to stay focused. It's weird how things work out.''
He stopped the first two shots against him, and his teammates worked to keep play in the other end as much as possible. The Komets even killed off a two-man Orlando power play for almost a full two minutes.
Orlando's third shot against Saalfrank was a blue-line bullet over his right shoulder that he never saw. That gave the Solar Bears the 4-3 lead which they stretched to 5-3 early in the third period.
As they continued to pepper Orlando goaltender and former teammate Cody Reichard, the Komets rallied on Mike Embach's third goal of the game. They finished with a 50-20 shot advantage but couldn't push the tying shot past a sprawling Reichard.
"I wish I could have scored one more,'' Embach said. "They are kind of lax in their own end and cheat toward offense. Those type of teams benefit us because if we are playing a harder style we can dominate. How many times did we turn them over? It was like constantly reloading offense, but Reichs stood on his head and made some good saves. That's his thing, he's an acrobat.''
There are 11 games left, and no one is sure when or if Makarov will return or what Meisner's situation will be. Graham said he has a college goaltender coming in today who might have to play his first pro game Friday against Gwinnett.
"We didn't expect Mac to get called up,'' Graham said. "It was a thing out of nowhere and you do it as fast as you can. These kids from college need 24 hours to get their affairs in order, and I got him here as quick as possible.''