For the first time in several years, no one really knows what to expect from the Fort Wayne Komets in the playoffs.
Oh, sure, every fan is hopeful, but they are not expectant, at least not like any time in the past 15 years. No one would be surprised if they went all the way to a championship, but no one would be totally shocked if they lost in the first round, either.
The last four years have taught that the ECHL playoffs are often about things out of a team's control, such has how many AHL players get sent to your opponent at the last minute. The Komets benefited from that last year when seven players showed up from San Antonio. As the Komets are now an independent, that won't happen this year, but that may not be a detriment. Frankly, that meant the Komets had to play some players who weren't as good as what they already had so the benefit balanced out. This year, they've had their lineup stabilized for several weeks and that might be a huge advantage in the postseason.
How much difference will the team chemistry they built all season matter? Doesn't it have to be an advantage that everyone already knows each other's tendencies? Shouldn't this be a deeper playoff team because of that?
This team has also been dominating at home with the best record in the ECHL. The forward lines should be able to compete with anyone, and key players such as Pat Nagle, Dan Milan, Bobby Shea, Jamie Schaafsma, Will Weber and Cody Sol had significant time off recently because of injuries and should be stronger heading into the playoffs because of that. There's also significant experience returning from last spring's long playoff run that saw the Komets reach the conference finals.
Coach Gary Graham has more flexibility than every on the forward lines, and the defensive pairings could also be interesting if Weber can return from an injury in time for Friday's Game 1. What will the pairings be? Which opponent forward lines will everyone match up with? How will that affect the goaltending?
Negatively, this team has been horrible on the road, especially in overtime or shootouts which will now be irrelevant. There was so much inconsistency away from Memorial Coliseum. Though they finished fourth in the overall ECHL standings, their road record easily cost them another 10-to-15 points. But the ended the season on a four-game road winning streak.
Though they've seemed to clean up this tendency of late, it's also going to be interesting to see how they do with penalties. That killed last season's run, and it was a huge problem most of this season. Can they keep calm and not retaliate? Can they play smart hockey and take hits to make plays? Can they be disciplined and stay out of the penalty box? Can they keep their mouths shut with the officials?
Can this team follow Graham's gameplans for a full 60 minutes each night? Graham has proven to be an excellent postseason tactician as the Komets are the only ECHL team to win at least one playoff round each of the past three seasons. But this team seemed to lose focus and daydream through second periods a lot this season. That can't happen in the playoffs.
Playoff games are about three things usually: 1. Keeping control of the puck and not giving up turnovers that lead to odd-man rushes; 2. Keeping the pressure on the opposing defense so it is off of your own; and 3. Staying out of the penalty box.
Over the last half of the season, opponents usually averaged two more power-play attempts per game than the Komets, and if that trend continues, this will be a very short spring. Good teams feed off power-play chances in the postseason, and that lack of discipline, a lack of composure could be lethal. That aspect will show how badly the Komets want to win a championship. Are they willing to endure the slashes, cross checks and cheap shots without retaliating? Are they willing to ignore Toledo's constant chirping without responding and let their play provide their answers?
Championship teams are mostly all about sacrifice, endurance and perseverance. Will beats skill. How badly does this Komets team want to win a title and what are they willing to put up with to prove it?
No one doubts they have the talent to win, but this is where we start to find out if they have the drive to succeed.
It's going to be fascinating to find out.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Blake Sebring at firstname.lastname@example.org.