When Fort Wayne fell behind 2-0 in the first period, all 5,739 Memorial Coliseum fans should have relaxed because the Komets were finally in their comfort zone.
After rallying 11 times from two-goal deficits to either win or earn an overtime point during the regular season, the Komets regained their momentum and came back to win 4-3 over Quad City to open the ECHL Playoffs on Friday night. Fort Wayne goaltender Pat Nagle seemed to be abandoned by his defensemen, but it another unlikely player who was the problem.
"Honestly, the first two goals were the forwards' fault, and they were my fault," said rookie center Mike Cazzola, the team's leading scorer and Most Valuable Player. "I went up to Nags at the end of the first period and told him don't worry about those two goals, they were my fault. He's been solid all year. He's held onto games for us, so we owed him to come back there."
The Komets fell behind 3-1 early in the second period, and then they shut the Mallards down, holding them to four shots for the final 37 minutes. Meanwhile, the Fort Wayne offense was firing grenades on Mallards goaltender C.J. Motte with 37 shots. They tried high and low, far side and short side, but finally the game-winner came from behind the net. Gabriel Desjardins picked up a loose puck along the boards behind the Quad City goal, carried it out front and beat Motte through the pads with 7:03 remaining.
The Komets and their fans could finally really relax.
"When they got that third goal, honestly, we weren't really deflated," Cazzola said. "We knew what we had to do. We kept to the system and it took a little longer than we wanted but we finally tied it up and then we were fortunate to get the game-winner.
Cazzola, Travis Ewanyk and Shawn Szydlowski scored the other Fort Wayne goals. Maybe the biggest goals came from the group of Desjardins, Ewanyk, Garrett Thompson, Curtis Leonard and Dan Milan who are primarily asked to provide defense against the other team's top line. This time the Mallards' Sam Warning, Brady Brassart and Justin Kovacs who were all minus-2 and were held to a combined three shots.
"Honestly, I feel like we've been playing this way for a while now at the end of the year," Thompson said. "We've been getting chances but they weren't going in, and now it's coming together a little bit more and it's a good time for it."
Maybe what Friday's game really shows is how much different the playoffs are from the regular season. The Komets just pounded the Mallards 5-2 and 6-1 last weekend, but Quad City got Brassart and Grant Arnold back from injured reserve and no longer had to use a defenseman as a center. They had also obviously learned a few things from those games, continually trying to stretch the Fort Wayne defense with long passes.
"When it's your first game, home ice and all of a sudden you're down 3-1, and it seems like you are playing really good but you are down 3-1, that can really play with your mind," Komets coach Gary Graham said. "I thought that the guys did a tremendous job of battling through. Perseverance has been a big thing with this group. We just stuck with the process. There's going to be some ups and downs and as long as we keep trusting each other and keep believing in what we're doing, we'll find a way."
The bigger outcome of the game might be the health of Fort Wayne defenseman Will Weber who took a high stick to the face from Quad City's Alex Petan during the third period. Weber never returned and the ever-cautious Graham would only say, "He's fine," after the game. Weber had already left the locker room by the time the media entered. Petan received a 4:00 high sticking penalty.
Game 2 starts at 7:30 p.m. before the series moves to Quad City for three games.
For more on the Komets, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at @blakesebring, at his blog tailingthekomets.com and on Facebook at Blake Sebring.