FORT WAYNE – The Komets have experienced the highs and lows of the playoffs in their first two games of the ECHL Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
They opened with a surprising 2-1 road victory over the defending-champion Reading Royals, then suffered a disappointing 4-2 loss in Game 2.
The Komets rely on their veterans to temper the enthusiasm of the highs and get through the frustration of the lows. And no one in the locker room is more even keel than Aaron Clarke, a 31-year-old forward.
He’s brought us more leadership, more poise in big spots, said coach Gary Graham, whose Komets play host to Game 3 on Thursday at Memorial Coliseum. He’s got a calm presence. He’s not a panicky type of guy. He’s just steady. As a coach, that’s what you want to see.
One of the wilder facets of this season was the Mickey Lang saga. After tallying 17 goals and 26 points in 24 games, he wanted to be traded and left the Komets on Dec. 26 to force the issue. He was dealt to Orlando for David Rutherford and future considerations.
But Rutherford never reported to Fort Wayne, and because the Komets failed to include a clause that would negate the trade in such an eventuality, the team lost Lang with no immediate return. Lang went on to win the ECHL’s goal-scoring title – he had 41 in 61 games – and was selected league MVP.
But there were those future considerations, and they finally were completed at the March 13 trade deadline with the acquisition of Clarke. He had spent 26 games with Toledo, which was out of the playoff race and sent him to Fort Wayne in a three-way deal with Orlando.
Toledo was gracious to offer me a spot to go for the playoffs, Clarke said. Coming here was great. Right away, everyone treated me with a lot of respect. It’s been easy to get to know the systems and the players and get into the games.
Clarke’s value to the Komets cannot be understated. Not only has he filled a gaping hole in the center of the ice, but he’s been a prolific scorer with seven goals and 18 points in 17 games.
The Komets have gone 11-5-1 with Clarke in the lineup, after they started 26-20-11.
Clarke has played for eight different teams in the ECHL and higher-level American Hockey League since 2007, spending most of his time with Wheeling and Kalamazoo.
He also played a season in Europe.
The Komets know just how tenacious he can be; he had nine goals and 21 points in 19 games against them.
Just being older, I need to do things the right way, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Clarke said. They have enough leaders on this team where I don’t need to be outspoken. There’s enough talk in the room. I just leave my game on the ice and let it speak for itself. Hopefully, the young guys see how hard I can work, and I try to do that every night and that’s what I try to bring.
Clarke’s presence has helped take the scoring pressure off Brandon Marino, the regular-season scoring champion (88 points), and ease the defensive strain.
It’s the intangibles he brings, Graham said. It’s the hard work and the depth down the middle of the ice, which we’d been looking for. There’s going to be highs and lows during the game and everything that’s external, and you have to eliminate all the clutter and stuff, and he does a great job of that.