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, keyed by Playoff MVP Stephen Harper’s two goals and Dylan Ferguson’s 26 saves.
“This is the best team I’ve ever played on. It’s the best night of my life, it really is,” said Shawn Szydlowski, the Komets’ longest tenured player with eight seasons donning the fireball. "This city, with the way they support the team, it’s an NHL city and an NHL arena. The organization has been nothing but good to me. The fan base, the crowd, I can’t say enough about it.”
The Komets won the series 3-1, though the Stingrays fought to the bitter end, getting 23 saves from goalie Hunter Shepard and a goal from Justin Florek.
“This is tough to put into words, but it feels pretty darned good,” Komets captain A.J. Jenks said. “This is just an unbelievably resilient group. And just a tight-knit bunch of dudes who never gave up on each other.”
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.
Even by playoff hockey standards, this run was particularly difficult.
Not only did the Komets endure 19 games over 36 days, playing in five states and travelling 8,355 miles (4,625 by bus, 3,730 by air), they needed five games to upset the Wichita Thunder and were on the ropes against the Allen Americans, down 1-0 in the series and three goals in the third period of Game 2 before winning 5-4 in overtime and taking that series in four games.
“This is indescribable,” Ferguson said. “I’m still in shock. Every single guy on this team deserved this. If you look back to the start of the playoffs, we (beat Wichita) in five and that comeback in Game 2 against Allen, man, just the way we got here is so crazy and I’m so proud of this group. I’m at a loss for words, really.”
The Stingrays were vying to become the first team to win four ECHL titles, but they couldn’t overcome a Komets team that finished the playoffs 6-1 at the Coliseum, bolstered by huge crowds over the last two games because health restrictions had been lifted to allow a return to maximum capacity.
“To win in front of these fans right now, let me tell you, there’s no better place to play hockey than as a Fort Wayne Komet,” said coach Ben Boudreau, who was in his second season but didn’t get a chance at a Cup in 2020 because the pandemic shut down play. “If you look at our recruiting, we talk about these moments and we talk about these experiences. They’re living it right now and this is the reason they came to Fort Wayne. For all those guys who made that jump here, I hope they enjoy it because this is what it’s all about.”
Harper, a rookie, was enjoying it all after he finished the postseason with six goals and 13 points in 12 games. Ferguson, Anthony Nellis, Brandon Hawkins and Alan Lyszczarczyk were also in contention for Playoff MVP, an award selected by the ECHL staff.
“This is unbelievable. Words can’t describe it,” Harper said. “This is my first championship ever. It’s a great group of guys and this was the best playoff run with all the bus trips, all the planes, all the games. I just had this weird feeling we were going to win and I’m so proud of our group.”
Quite a cap to a Fort Wayne season that almost didn’t happen.
Fearful of the financial losses they expected to endure 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 13 other teams had started back in December and 12 opted out altogether.
Fort Wayne, the third seed in the Western Conference, stole a road game in all three series, putting the onus on their play at the Coliseum to eliminate opponents. The Stingrays, the fourth and final seed out of the Eastern Conference, had won two previous must-win games – in the first round against the regular-season-champion Florida Everblades – but they had trouble breaking through the stingy Fort Wayne defense Friday.
The scoreless first period featured terrific goaltending, highlighted by a Shepard save on 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 a Lyszczarczyk 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 crossing pass from the left boards, at 15:30.
South Carolina’s 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 drew a major penalty for cross-checking Fort Wayne’s Jenks in the head as retaliation for a hit. That sucked any remaining life out of the Stingrays.
Notes: Andrew Bruggeman and Alex Normandin were the referees. … The 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.