FORT WAYNE – It’s stone simple now, of course. And, of course, not so simple.
You kick ’em to the curb, on the heels of Komets 3, Reading 1 in Game 4. You step on their air hose. You count 10 over ’em, get ’em overbalanced out there on the ledge, don’t let a glimmer of light penetrate all the gathering darkness every team that goes down three-games-to-one in a best-of-seven suddenly sees wherever it looks.
And also: Yeah. Good luck with that.
Good luck, because if there’s a cliché out there with an actual pulse, this is it: Closing out an opponent in a playoff series is the toughest nut in sports. And that’s especially true when it’s the defending league champion – a team that won 46 games in the regular season for the second winter in a row, has seven skaters who bench-pressed the Kelly Cup last spring and has a coach (Larry Courville) who’s never missed the playoffs and is as adept as they come at making game-to-game adjustments.
“That’s a championship team over there. We’ve been down 3-1 in the past and found a way to come back, and they’ve got the same character in that locker room,” Komets captain Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock cautioned when it was done Friday, and of course that was right.
“We’ve still got to be better,” said the coach, Gary Graham, and of course that was right, too.
Know what else is right?
Hard as it is, the secret to closing it out in Game 5, to kicking the defending league champs to the curb, is no secret at all. It is, yes, stone simple.
You just keep doing what you’re doing. Only better.
For the Komets, that means you do what you did in Game 3 and for much of the second and third periods in Game 4, which is put the Royals on their heels and keep them there. You hit, you attack the net, you play with pace and energy in the neutral zone. You take away shooting angles in your zone, because right now the puck’s the size of a dinner plate for Ben Meisner back there in goal.
Meisner made 33 saves a night after making 36 in Game 3 and got his team even at 1-1 through a first period in which Reading brought a hard rain of rubber, outshooting the Komets 16-8 and spending vast quantities of time in the attacking zone.
But that was the Royals’ zenith. Come the second period, the Komets went back to attacking themselves and playing at a faster pace than Reading found comfortable, and when Christian Ouellet scored the go-ahead goal on a deflection five minutes in, that was pretty much it. Even if it didn’t seem like it at the time.
It wasn’t as precise a game as the Komets played in Game 3, but it was precise enough. And yet no one has any illusions that enough will be enough Sunday.
“There’s no doubt we have to get better every game,” Schrock said. “If you’re not getting better every game, this time of year, your season’s over.”
Down the way a few lockers, Chris Auger agreed.
“We’ve seemed to get better when we’ve had to be,” he said. “But it’s going to be tough. Any time you have a chance to close somebody out, they’re going to be desperate. But we’re going to be desperate, too.”
Simple. Not so simple.