FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Fort Wayne flipped the script in the ECHL's best rivalry Tuesday as the Komets finally got the best of the Toledo Walleye, eliminating them from the Kelly Cup playoffs with a 4-2 victory in Game 6 of the Central Division final series to win the series 4-2..
The Walleye had ousted Fort Wayne from the playoffs in 2015 and last season, but the Komets turned the tables, knocking Toledo out of the playoffs this time.
Fort Wayne broke a 2-2 deadlock with a goal by Gabriel Desjardins midway through the second period before a crowd of 6,160 at Memorial Coliseum. The Komets got an empty-net goal late in regulation.
The Walleye had won the division and Western Conference titles in the regular season to earn home-ice advantage through the first three rounds, but the Komets won two of three at the Huntington Center and also took two of three at home in the best-of-7 series.
“There's massive disappointment,” Toledo coach Dan Watson said. “It's a good group of guys — great character. Guys fighting for each other, especially the guys that have been here for so long. We had a team that could make it into June. We just ran into a very good Fort Wayne team. I thought they got timely goaltending and had guys step up.”
With the game tied at 2 near the midpoint, Desjardins cashed in after a lengthy scramble in front of Walleye goalie Pat Nagle to give the Komets a 3-2 lead. The loose puck slid around the top of the crease in traffic before Desjardins slammed it home for the game winner.
Komets captain Shawn Szydlowski finished it off with 1:02 to go in regulation.
“It's tough to dig up the words,” said forward A.J. Jenks, one of eight veterans on the Walleye. “This one hurts for sure. It's unfortunate we've fallen short again.”
The teams combined for four goals in the first period. Fort Wayne grabbed a 1-0 lead before the Walleye went up 2-1. The Komets tied it back up in the late stages of the period as the teams combined for three goals in the final 5 minutes, 32 seconds of the first.
Walleye forward Zach Nastasiuk scored a power-play goal with 5:32 remaining to tie the game at 1. Fort Wayne goalie Michael Houser lost sight of the puck and Nastasiuk had all kinds of time to flip in a rebound.
Just 2:18 after Toledo tied it, Austen Brassard cashed in on a solo rush set up by Christian Hilbrich and Connor Crisp to give the Walleye a 2-1 lead.
However, 1:27 after the Walleye seized the advantage, Fort Wayne tied it as Jason Binkley had a power-play goal, popping in a rebound with 1:47 to go in the first.
The Komets scored on their third shot of the game after a Walleye turnover deep in their own end. Mason Baptista batted in a loose puck to the side of Nagle for the 1-0 lead 6:01 into the game.
“That's a monkey off my back,” Fort Wayne coach Gary Graham said. “This Toledo team was unbelievable with the challenge they presented to us. We're very fortunate to get past such a worthy, well-coached team. We knew we would not out-skill them. We knew we had to outwork them.”
Nagle, who played for Fort Wayne the past three seasons, went 2-4 against his former team.
“It's [ending] earlier than we wanted to see,” said Nagle, who finished with 30 saves. “We've seen a lot of tight series between these teams, and this round we didn't get the bounces. But they have a good team. That's the way she goes. They have a lot of good forwards, good D, and a good goalie. At the end of the day, they were better than us at every position. That's a pill we have to swallow.”
Nagle made two terrific saves to keep it a one-goal game inr the first 11 minutes. He followed with another stop with 4:40 left in the second to keep it close. Nagle said the Komets did a phenomenal job getting traffic in the paint.
“That makes it tough on a goalie,” he said.”
With more than 10 minutes left in regulation, Nagle thwarted a 2-on-1 shorthanded breakaway with a great snap glove save.
However, Toledo continued a common theme in the series of missing quality chances just high and wide.
“We didn't do a good enough job getting in front of [Houser],” Watson said. “If you give a good goaltender an opportunity to see a puck, he's going to make [the save]. We needed to score goals in those dirty areas. But he stood tall.”
Houser came up with a key save on a point-blank shot by Zach Nastasiuk 1:04 into the second to keep it tied at 2. Dylan Sadowy hit the post, as the Walleye had a quick burst of pressure early in the period as Houser kept it tied with consecutive saves.
The Walleye pressed hard with five minutes left in regulation, but Houser, who tallied 28 saves, was equal to the task.
Watson pulled Nagle for the extra attacker with 1:09 to go, and Szydlowski put it away seven seconds later.
Going into the series, Toledo was 8-4 against Fort Wayne in playoff games, going 2-0 in series match-ups with the Komets. In the regular season, Toledo has a record of 24-19-7 against Fort Wayne.
The Walleye have faced elimination games 16 times since their first season in 2009-10, and they have a 10-6 record in those do-or-die situations.
“Guys have been around here for a long time and we've had a lot of good teams and good groups and opportunities to make good things happen,” Jenks said. “But it's been a great ride while it's lasted.”
LINEUP CHANGE: Forward Tyler Barnes, who has eight points in the playoffs, was replaced by Hilbrich, who had six points, in the lineup. Hilbrich, a 6-foot-7, 228-pounder, was paired with fellow big men Crisp (6-2) and Brassard (6-2).
Veteran forwards Shane Berschbach, A.J. Jenks, and Kyle Bonis were on the same line.
Nastasiuk, Sadowy, and Mike Borkowski, who all spent plenty of time in the American Hockey League this season, were on the other line. Former Fort Wayne forward Mike Embach served as the Walleye's 10th forward.
Barnes, who was the 2015 rookie of the year for Toledo, compiled all his points in the first three games of the playoffs.
Key defenseman Simon Denis was not in the lineup for the Walleye for the second consecutive game.
FISH TALES: The Walleye went 4 of 26 on the power play in the series.
■ The Walleye had just 15 shots in Game 1, but then had 140 in the next four contests (35 per game). Toledo had 78 shots in Games 4 and 5.
■ Rookie defenseman Trevor Hamilton replaced fellow rookie defenseman Kevin Lohan in the lineup. Hamilton made his playoff debut. Both defensemen were signed out of college late in the regular season.
■ The two teams finished as the top two in attendance during the regular season. The Walleye set franchise records for sellouts (28) and total attendance (273,613).
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