Cohn, Smith break down K's series

Beat writer Justin A. Cohn and columnist Ben Smith, both of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, break down the upcoming series between the Komets and the Reading Royals in the ECHL's Eastern Conference quarterfinals. It includes their predictions for the series.

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Ben Smith

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Many factors led to Komets’ turnaround

– Somewhere it turned. That’s all anyone can say now.

Somewhere between one spin and the next, the revolving door spit out the right combination, and a hockey team that spent half a season remaking itself discovered that the makeover was, well, pretty much over. Or mostly over.

The locker room got better. The hockey got better. Somewhere in the midst of nine goalies and 39 other bodies blowing through town, what remained was … good. Or at least good enough.

And now it’s mid-April and practice is winding down for the day, and the questions for these Komets are all about defending ECHL champion Reading and the first round of the playoffs. And if you ask why that’s so – if you ask how the Komets went from mucking around at the bottom of the Eastern Division to squeezing into the playoffs as the regular season expired – opinions will vary.

Team captain Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock will lean on his stick and say it happened sometime after Mickey Lang and Mike Vaskuvuo asked out of what they saw as a bad fit for themselves.

Coach Gary Graham will lean on the boards and say it was a specific weekend in Elmira, N.Y., in the dog days of January, when something finally just clicked.

“We went out to Elmira in like the third week,” he says. “We were struggling playing against Elmira, and we were playing them a lot. And we had to go out there and play them three games.”

The Komets won two of them, 4-3 and 4-0. They acquitted themselves honorably enough in the third, a 4-1 loss. And … something turned.

“That’s what I remember most about kind of getting things going on the right track,” Graham says. “They had our number a bit up to that point there, and we were neck and neck at that time in the standings – kind of ninth, 10th, 11th spot, you know what I mean – so we knew those games were going to be of importance.”

Not that it was as stark a dividing line as all that. The Komets, 4-6 in January to that point, won three of their next five games. They went 7-6 in February and 6-6 in March. But here down the stretch in April, they’ve won five of six and haven’t lost in regulation since March 23.

“We’ve played better hockey overall for the last, really, two months,” Graham says.

All Schrock knows is it didn’t happen at once.

“I think it took us awhile,” he says. “After Langer and Vasky left, I think we lost our first few games. But I think the room was a lot better.

“Nothing against those guys, but I think it just brought guys close together. Other guys had to step up and play bigger roles. Whenever you lose two guys like that it’s kind of a rallying point sometimes, and I think that’s what we used it as.”

A lot of that, Graham says, was due to the core leadership – Schrock, Brandon Marino, Chris Auger, Simon Danis-Pepin, others. And some of it was just getting the right pieces together, people who wholly bought in and pulled in the same direction.

All anyone can say for sure is something turned. At some point.

“It’s not every day you can lose one of the league’s top five goal scorers and top five point getters, and your playoff MVP from years past, and turn into a better team,” Schrock says. “But we figured out a way to do that.”

Somehow. Some way.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.