The season that almost never happened ended in the best possible way – with the Komets winning the Kelly Cup.
They cemented the championship with a 2-1 victory Friday night over the South Carolina Stingrays in front of a sellout crowd of 10,477 at Memorial Coliseum.
Stephen Harper keyed the victory with two goals. Dylan Ferguson stopped 26 of 27 shots.
The Komets won the series 3-1.
It’s Fort Wayne’s 10th championship in 69 years of play and their first since winning the Central Hockey League in 2012, just before they departed for the ECHL. The Komets are believed to be the first team to win championships in four different professional leagues, including the International and United Hockey Leagues.
The Stingrays, who got 23 saves from Hunter Shepard, were vying to become the first team to win four ECHL titles.
Quite a cap to a Fort Wayne season that almost didn’t happen.
Fearful of the financial losses they expected to endure with limited capacity during the pandemic, and that COVID-19 might halt play altogether, the Komets’ owners didn’t opt into the season until Jan. 5 and didn’t begin playing until February. The league’s other 13 teams had started back in December and 12 opted out altogether.
Fort Wayne, the third seed in the Western Conference, upset the Wichita Thunder and Allen Americans in the earlier round of the playoffs. As they did in those series, the Komets stole a road game against the Stingrays, the fourth and final seed out of the Eastern Conference, and needed to only take care of business on home ice.
Give the grueling nature of these playoffs, that was easier said than done. Friday marked the Komets’ Komets’ 19th game in 36 days, covering five states and 8,355 miles (4,625 travelled by bus, 3,730 by airplane), with only seven of the games at the Coliseum. The Komets were 6-1 at The Jungle in the postseason.
The scoreless first period Friday featured terrific goaltending, highlighted by a Shepard save on Anthony Nellis at the end of a 2-on-1 rush and Ferguson sprawling, without his stick, to stop Andrew Cherniwchan.
The Stingrays had a bevy of chances to begin the second period, including a Cole Ully shot that caromed off the post and a Brett Supinski shot from point-blank range that Ferguson foiled, setting up Harper for a goal at the other end where he chipped a 10-foot shot over Shepard at 8:16.
Shepard recovered and came up with a breathtaking kick save on Alan Lyszczarczyk’s shot at 12:52 from 13 feet out that seemed destined to find an open part of the net. But Shepard was defenseless to stop Harper’s slapshot from the bottom of the right circle, set up by Randy Gazzola’s pass from the left boards, at 15:30.
South Carolina’s Justin Florek answered with a shot from the bottom of the left circle at 17:56.
On the first shift of the third period, Shepard foiled Harper on a breakaway rush. Ferguson one-upped him with a save on a no-look Mark Cooper shot at 10:50 and he thwarted Cherniwchan with a kick save at 13:12. Shepard answered back by gloving a Nellis shot from point-blank range at 14:50.
The Komets got a 3-minute power play at 15:49, when South Carolina’s Max Gottlieb cross-checked Fort Wayne’s A.J. Jenks in the head in retaliation for a hit, drawing a major penalty.
Notes: Andrew Bruggeman and Alex Normandin were the referees. … Komets played without Marco Roy, Matt Murphy, Morgan Adams-Moisan, Jackson Leef and Robbie Beydoun. … The Stingrays scratched Chase Stewart, Jade Miller, Cameron Askew, Tim Harrison and Connor Moore. … There was a scary early moment when a Stephen Harper slapshot struck South Carolina’s Tyler Nanne in the face. He returned later in the first period.