INDIANAPOLIS – With the season cut short due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Indy Fuel’s second ever playoff run was also cut short. In Fuel play-by-play broadcaster Andrew Smith’s postseason interview with owner Jim Hallett, Hallett called this team “the most talented group that [has ever been] in Indy in six years.”
It really started with the hire of former Manchester Monarchs head coach Doug Christiansen in the offseason. Christiansen instantly brought in talent from the east coast and teams that Indy doesn’t see all that often being in the Central Division. Getting a fresh start and a new look, along with a renewed relationship with their AHL affiliate the Rockford IceHogs and the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, it seemed to be the spark the Fuel needed.
Final Record: 30-26-2-2; 4th in Central Division; 8th in Western Conference
Leading Scorer: Spencer Watson (54 GP, 31G, 28A, 59P)
Best Netminder: Charles Williams (31 GP, 18-10-1-0, 2.91 GAA, .908 SV%)
The high point of the season for Indy would be playing the Toledo Walleye. Historically, the Fuel have struggled against the Walleye, losing to them 10-0 in the 2016-17 season and getting swept in the first round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs in 2017-18. This year, however, Indy dominated the season series against Toledo, going 7-2-0-0 against the second-place team in the Central Division.
The Fuel lost just one game out of four played at the Huntington Center in Toledo. It is important to note that the Walleye ranked second in attendance in the ECHL (behind just the Fort Wayne Komets) with an average attendance of 7,448. Selling out nearly every game, Toledo also made the Huntington Center one of the toughest places to play in the league.
The low point of the season for Indy would be the month of November. The Fuel had their largest slip of the year in the second month of the season, dropping seven straight matches. In every one of those games, Indy lost by one goal in regulation (except for the November 27 game in Adirondack, where they lost 4-2). Luckily for the Fuel, only two of those seven games came inside the Central Division.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE SEASON
The highlight of the season for the Fuel was Spencer Watson’s franchise record and career-high 31st goal of the season in the last game of the year in Kalamazoo. That goal ended up being the game-winner in a 1-0 win over the Wings. Watson had a breakout year for Indy after being traded to the Blackhawks from the Los Angeles Kings on February 24 last year for forward Matheson Iacopelli.
The 2019-20 Fuel team MVP played for Christiansen in Manchester last year for the now-defunct Manchester Monarchs, where he put up 47 points (22G, 25A) in 47 games. Watson and Iacopelli faced off in that game in Kalamazoo, where Watson got the better of the match-up.
SURPRISES / DISAPPOINTMENTS
The biggest surprise of the season was the arrival of defenseman Craig Wyszomirski after he announced his retirement before the season started. Wyszomirski returned and was named the Fuel’s Defenseman of the Year in a fan-voted award ceremony on Twitter. Wyszomirski tallied four goals and 10 points, along with a plus-eight rating and a team-high 89 penalty minutes in just 43 games. The 27-year-old also recorded two game-winners, including an overtime goal against the Walleye.
The biggest disappointment this year was the injury of forward Alex Krushelnyski. Krushelnyski showed signs of stardom before being knocked out and taken off on a stretcher because of a hit from Walleye defenseman Mike Moffat in Toledo on January 11. Before the injury, Krushelnyski tallied ten goals and 25 points in just 20 games. Krushelnyski was never able to fully return from his injury, only grabbing five points in nine games after the injury.
IF THE SEASON CONTINUED…HOW WOULD IT HAVE PLAYED OUT?
Indy was heading down the front stretch of the season with a ten-point lead over the fifth-place Kalamazoo Wings in the Central Division. The Fuel’s last game of the season was a 1-0 win over the Wings on March 11, with Spencer Watson scoring the lone goal of the game, his 31st of the season and league-leading 11th power play goal on the year. The two teams below Indy in the Central Division standings — the Wings and the Wheeling Nailers — were on losing skids as well, with the Wings losing three straight and the Nailers losing seven in a row.
With all this in mind, it is very plausible that the Fuel could’ve made their second ever Kelly Cup Playoffs bid. Sitting in fourth place, they were only six points behind the third-place Fort Wayne Komets with two games in hand. In Indy’s last 12 games of the year and the Komets’ last ten games of the year, the two rivals would still meet three more times before the end of the regular season. Those six points could’ve been a huge turning point in the Central Division standings.
FOCUS FOR OFFSEASON
Going into next season, the Fuel should focus on developing a more physical presence to compete with the rough and tumble Central Division. The Fuel were the third-least penalized team in the entire ECHL, just eight penalty minutes ahead of the second-least penalized team, the Reading Royals. The Central Division did contain both the most penalized team (Fort Wayne Komets) and the least penalized team (Wheeling Nailers) in the ECHL, but Indy is going to need to find a more physical presence to win the battles along the boards and get scrappy in front of the net.
Christiansen did get a lot of this grit in a mid-season trade with the Kansas City Mavericks when they sent forwards Sam Kurker and Matt Schmalz to the Mavericks for forward Ryan Van Stralen and defenseman Cliff Watson. This filled both needs of a stronger blueline and a grittier forward presence. If Christiansen can find a way to bring back Van Stralen and players like Joe Sullivan and Michael Doherty, the Fuel will be on track to pick up where they left off this season.
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Although this was the most promising year in the six-year history of the Fuel, there is a very solid foundation to build on next year to potentially become an even more dangerous team than they were this year. Christiansen is one of the league’s premier recruiting and development coaches, so Indy could very well come out next season and be even better than they were this year (which is a scary thing to think about, as they boasted one of the league’s top offenses).
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