2024 Indy Fuel vs Fort Wayne Komets

Race For ECHL Central Division Playoff Spots Is Must-See Hockey

Race For ECHL Central Division Playoff Spots Is Must-See Hockey

Regardless of where you live, check out what’s going on in the ECHL Central in the final days of the regular season. Here are some things you need to know.

Apr 5, 2024 by Justin Cohn
Race For ECHL Central Division Playoff Spots Is Must-See Hockey

The Indy Fuel’s Ross MacDougall, backtracking in front of his own net, coughed up the puck to the Wheeling Nailers’ Matt Koopman. 

Knowing that Indy goaltender Mitchell Weeks was on the bench in favor of an extra attacker, Koopman quickly unleashed a shot from the right circle that seemed destined to alter – yet again – the dynamics of the Central Division playoff race.

But MacDougall had one of the best recoveries in the ECHL this season, squatting to deflect Koopman’s shot out of harm’s way. It happened in a split second Wednesday, but it was a microcosm of what’s been going on in the Central Division – unadulterated excitement.

Thirty-six seconds later, Indy’s Brett Bulmer chased a rebound in front of the Wheeling net and had his stick knocked out of his hands by a Justin Addamo slash. That set up a power play and a goal by Indy’s Andrew Perrott, who got to the rebound of his own shot, flicked it high into the crease and watched as it caromed off Wheeling’s Thimo Nickl and into the net with 21 seconds remaining in regulation at Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis.

In the 3-on-3 overtime, Indy’s Andrew Bellant took a spinning, no-look shot from the left circle that slipped past Nailers goaltender Garret Sparks for a 6-5 Fuel victory.


It was must-see TV, and that’s what the Central Division has been lately. If you haven’t been checking it out, well, you should.

The Toledo Walleye are the division’s best team. Everyone knows it. They’re 44-14-9 (97 points), have clinched the division title and have a 16-point cushion over the second-place Fuel (37-24-7, 81 points).

Indy’s victory over Wheeling on Wednesday was a doozy – the Fuel squandered two early one-goal leads, then the Nailers followed suit by three times coughing up one-goal leads.

Indy certainly now has the inside track to getting the second seed and home-ice advantage for a first-round, best-of-seven playoff series. Indy has a six-point cushion over the third-place teams, the Nailers (35-28-5, 75 points) and the Kalamazoo Wings (36-27-3, 75 points).

And the Fort Wayne Komets (33-27-6, 72 points) still are in the playoff mix, too, though their schedule became more complex Thursday when it was announced their game Friday at Wheeling, West Virginia, had been postponed because of high water levels on the Ohio River, which is right next to WesBanco Arena, causing fear there could be flooding in the arena.

That game was rescheduled for this Wednesday, and that’s a mixed bag for the Komets, who are trying to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and only the second time since 2002. 

Now, they won’t go into Saturday’s game in Fort Wayne, Indiana, against the Fuel in a beleaguered state, since Indy also is idle Friday, but the Komets will have to close the regular season with four games in five nights in three different cities, including a home-and-home series with the archrival Walleye to finish.

Success during that is a tall order, especially in a division where everyone is competitive – even the Cincinnati Cyclones (29-32-6, 64 points) and the Iowa Heartlanders (26-33-8, 60 points), the best last-place team in the entire league.

The number of remaining games for those teams jostling for Nos. 2-4 seeds in the Central Division is key. 

Kalamazoo and Fort Wayne have six games left, while Indy and Wheeling have only four apiece. And that’s why it has become so difficult to predict what’s going to happen.

Things similarly are logjammed in the South Division. 

The Greenville Swamp Rabbits (42-19-5, 89 points) lead that division, and the Jacksonville Icemen (41-20-6, 88 points) are just behind them. Only four points separate the three teams vying for the final two playoff spots in the South – the South Carolina Stingrays (38-24-5, 81 points), two-time defending-champion Florida Everblades (34-23-9, 77 points) and Orlando Solar Bears (34-24-9, 77 points) – but I tend to think the Central Division race is more exciting right now.

That probably has something to do with my belief the Central Division is stronger from top to bottom – the South Division has the ECHL’s worst team, the Atlanta Gladiators – and the added intrigue of Fort Wayne trying to avoid missing the playoffs when people automatically expect the Komets to be in the postseason. And I’ll admit, because I live in Central Division territory, I’m closer to it all.

But regardless of where you live, check out what’s going on in the Central in the final days of the regular season. Here are some things you need to know:

Toledo Walleye

It’s about time to see if the Walleye’s coach, Pat Mikesch, has what it takes to do in the postseason what his processor, Dan Watson, couldn’t – orchestrate a Kelly Cup championship. 

With the way Toledo has been playing, the Walleye wouldn’t be a bad bet. 

The Toledo offense, paced by Brandon Hawkins, the ECHL’s leader in goals (38) and points (88), is absolutely scary. But Toledo finally has cleaned up other parts of its game. 

It’s become sound defensively and is getting good goaltending from John Lethemon and Jan Bednar; Toledo hasn’t allowed more than two goals in its last nine games, winning all of them. 

Toledo finishes the regular season with two games against Iowa, one against Wheeling, then two against Fort Wayne. This always is a tough spot for a team with comfortable position atop the standings: Does it rest guys or try to maintain momentum? 

Toledo doesn’t have to worry much about seeding beyond the divisional playoffs – it’ll probably have home ice over everyone except the Kansas City Mavericks (50-11-6, 106 points) – and I’ve already heard from fans who think the Walleye will take it easy on Fort Wayne because that might help the Walleye avoid facing Kalamazoo, a team Toledo is only 4-7-2 against. 

Wishful thinking; I’ve yet to see a team that just mails it in to try and control the standings.

Indy Fuel

Nothing Indy does is particularly flashy – it ranks 12th in offense (3.22 goals per game) and 12th in defense (3.07 goals against per game – but the team is consistent, opportunistic and dangerous. 

The Nailers were reminded of that Wednesday in the harshest way, when they snoozed for a few stretches, and that led to Indy goals. 

These are the Fuel’s final games at Indiana Farmers Coliseum before they move to a new arena in Fishers next season, and it’s starting to feel as if the Fuel are embracing the drama of trying to send the storied old building out with a bang. 

Indy is 20-9-5 at home this season. Indy has two more games against Fort Wayne and one apiece against Wheeling and Kalamazoo. 

The Fuel would love nothing more than to keep the Komets from the postseason and do so with Anthony Petruzzelli on the roster; one move made by the Komets last summer that didn’t sit well with the fans was letting Petruzzelli, who was Fort Wayne’s captain, get away, first to a team in the United Kingdom, before he signed with Jacksonville and then was traded to the Fuel. But Indy is only 3-2-1 in its last six games.

Kalamazoo Wings

Aside from Erik Bradford – who was my choice for MVP – the Wings don’t have a lot of big offensive stars, though there are times when Josh Passolt, David Keefer and Brad Morrison will do breathtaking things. 

What makes the Wings so good is their solid, physical defensive style – they rank fourth with 2.80 goals against per game – and the goaltending of Jonathan Lemieux and Hunter Vorva. That’s been their recipe for success against the Walleye. 

If there’s a fan base I’m happy for this year, aside from the upstart Norfolk Admirals, it’s the Wings’ fans. 

For years, I’ve gotten emails from frustrated Wings fans seeing the success of nearby Toledo and Fort Wayne, and finally they’re getting some excitement at Wings Event Center. 

Kalamazoo has two remaining games against Cincinnati and two against Iowa – and that’s a pretty profound reason to think the Wings have the inside track to making the postseason over Wheeling and Fort Wayne – and Kalamazoo also plays Fort Wayne and Indy one time each. But the Wings have won only four of their last seven games.

Wheeling Nailers

The Nailers looked like a legitimate Kelly Cup contender when they won 12 straight games in January and February. Since then, they’ve gone 7-12-3, and that includes a 1-3-2 mark in their last six games. 

Not having goaltender Taylor Gauthier, my selection for first team All-League, has hurt since he was called to the AHL on March 28. But honestly, the Nailers still should be fine with Sparks and Jaxon Castor in net. 

It’s just been a matter of consistency for the Nailers, in all facets of the game, but the return of forwards Addamo and Dillon Hamaliuk from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this week certainly gives the Nailers a formidable offense. 

The Nailers also have all home games left on the schedule – against Indy, Fort Wayne, Toledo and Cincinnati. Wheeling is 2-5-0 against the Komets and 2-6-2 against the Fuel, and those games loom particularly large.

Fort Wayne Komets

I’ve watched every Fort Wayne game this season and still don’t quite know what to make of the Komets. On some nights, they look exceptional, others dreadful. 

Coming off a 5-2 victory over Kalamazoo on Saturday, they are riding some momentum into Saturday’s game at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum against the Fuel. 

Offensively, Fort Wayne should be fine; it has stars such as Jack Dugan, Ture Linden and Ethan De Jong. In net, the trio of Ryan Fanti, Brett Brochu and Tyler Parks is among the best in the league. 

It’s the play in the defensive zone that gets dicey; sometimes Fort Wayne strays from a physical game and gets lax with its passing. 

I tend to think, Fort Wayne is the one team the division rivals, even Toledo, would like to see miss the postseason because of its tremendous upside. But I could be wrong. 

The Komets are inconsistent, and that has been proven time and again. 

Fort Wayne has two games left with Indy, two with Toledo and one apiece against Kalamazoo and Wheeling. It basically controls its own destiny, but the Komets haven’t won six in a row all season. 

It very well may come down to the final weekend’s home-and-home series against Toledo, and Fort Wayne is 2-8-1 against the Walleye. 

Fort Wayne fans have been frustrated, but they’d best remember this has been a season of rebuilding – with a new coach, Jesse Kallechy – and the pieces seem to be in place for a strong, young nucleus beyond this season, even if Fort Wayne misses the postseason.

Cincinnati Cyclones

Give this to the Cyclones, who have had a highly disappointing season on the ice: They’re still playing hard. 

A 3-2 overtime victory over Kalamazoo on Saturday was the proof, and what a night it was for hockey as the Cyclones became the first team in professional hockey history to start five Black players – Jalen Smereck, Josh Burnside, Landon Cato, Kyle Bollers and Elijah Gonsalves – to say nothing of having a Black coach, Jason Payne, who deserves some credit for making sure his team hasn’t just mailed it in in recent weeks and began building for next season. 

The Cyclones have two remaining games against Kalamazoo, two against Kansas City and one against Wheeling. That’s a tough stretch, but I wouldn’t count the Cyclones out of stealing some points along the way.

Iowa Heartlanders

Iowa has lost its last four games, but the Heartlanders have a history of being a thorn in better teams’ sides, and a tough closing schedule that includes two games against Toledo, two against Kalamazoo and one against Kansas City will give Iowa more opportunity to make some noise. 

Goaltender Drew DeRidder is back from the AHL, and there’s Peyton Jones and Hunter Jones, too, and no one likes firing shots at those tricky netminders. 

Iowa has talent – Louis Boudon, Yuki Miura, Ben Brinkman, Casey Dornbach – and like Cincinnati, I’d bet the Heartlanders steal some points and complicate the Central Division race even more. 

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