FORT WAYNE, Ind – The defending Kelly Cup Champions began their title defense on Friday evening against the Wheeling Nailers. The Komets had had their way with Wheeling for most of the season, including winning both meetings between the teams last week, but the playoffs are a new season in which anything can happen, and that’s exactly what we saw that Friday night with Wheeling winning 1-0.
Early on, the two rivals seemed to be feeling each other out for the new series, but it was Wheeling making the early pushes. The Nailers brought energy with their heavy hits and speedy forwards, putting many Fort Wayne players on their heels. The Komets struggled to set up chances with many passes out of reach for their targeted teammate. Neither team was able to sustain zone pressure, leading to many one and done chances. All seemed destined for a scoreless first period until Patrick Watling tipped home a shot from the point that fooled Komet goaltender Samuel Harvey to put the underdog Nailers up after one.
Wheeling kept the pressure on in the second, testing Harvey with several transition opportunities that he ultimately turned aside. The Komets drew iron twice in the period, inching closer to tying the contest, but they were unable to solve Wheeling’s Louis-Philip Guindon.
The third period was the Guindon show, as the Komets outshot the Nailers 18-3 in the final frame, but the former Komet goaltender held his ground. Wheeling killed off three third-period penalties, including a 6 on 4 opportunity for Fort Wayne late in the game. In the end, the Komets weren’t going to solve Guindon’s heroics on Friday night, and Wheeling took game one of the best of seven series.
By far the best skater on the night, Watling made his presence felt beyond his offensive skills. The high-scoring forward had a great start to the postseason, scoring the only goal on the night and leading Wheeling to their first playoff victory since 2016. Watling also made a variety of defensive plays, forcing Komet turnovers and also laying out on defense to prevent possible Fort Wayne transition chances. Whenever Wheeling needed a spark, he always seemed to be the one to get the job done.
Not Your Typical Komets
As referenced earlier, the Komets were coming off of back-to-back wins over the Nailers last week. What changed? Fort Wayne never seemed to get comfortable until the third period, and that cost them Friday. Even with the multiple power plays late in the third, the Komets couldn’t buy a goal when they needed it. Three post shots were the story of the evening. It was the kind of start to a playoff series that you fear if you’re a Komets fan. Is Fort Wayne in trouble? We will find out more tomorrow.
Credit goes to both Guindon and Harvey on their fantastic starts to the postseason. Guindon’s 34 save shutout against his former team allowed the Nailers to survive on just one goal all night. Likewise, the Komets couldn’t have asked for a much better outing from Samuel Harvey. He bailed out his teammates most of the evening for their poor play leading to costly turnovers that could’ve put the game out of reach for the Komets if it wasn’t for his play. Harvey had been solid all season against Wheeling, with Friday being his first loss to them in seven matchups, but he will get a chance to redeem himself on Saturday.
Overall, it was evident that Wheeling used speed and physicality to jump on Fort Wayne early, and it paid off down the stretch. Now, the Nailers take control of home-ice advantage and put the pressure on the Komets to win on Saturday night to avoid a 2-0 series hole going into at most three straight games at Wesbanco Arena in West Virginia.
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