The ECHL playoffs are still more than a week away.
Needing a win to keep pace in the race for the final playoff spot in the Central Division, the Indy Fuel brought a taste of postseason hockey to the Indiana Farmers Coliseum Friday night.
Logan Nelson and Michael Neal each had four-point nights and Josh Shalla scored twice to lead the Fuel to a 6-3 victory over the Kansas City Mavericks.
“That was a playoff atmosphere,” Fuel coach Bernie John said. “There were big hits out there on both sides, both sides were playing like their seasons matter. It's going to be that way the rest of the way.”
Friday's game was the second time this season - and the third time in the Fuel's four-year history - two players had four-point games in the same contest. Nelson gave the Fuel a 2-0 lead with two bar-down blasts, then assisted on Neal's eventual game-winner in the closing seconds of the second period.
The Fuel came into the game trailing Kansas City by two points in the standings, making Friday a critical potential four-point swing game both teams needed to keep pace with fourth-place Kalamazoo. The Fuel's victory puts both Indy and KC three points back of the Wings for the division's final playoff spot with a game in hand on both teams.
“There's no easy task,” Neal said. “Every game is a playoff game. We're fighting for our lives. It looked like we were out there - we were the first to pucks, getting the puck to the net, obviously we were chasing them (in the standings). Now, we can't really worry about tonight, because now we've got tomorrow. We need to go get some rest, reset and play a big game against Fort Wayne.”
The Fuel host Fort Wayne at 7:35 p.m. Saturday to finish the weekend.
Etienne Marcoux made 25 saves in the Indy net. The league's top power play connected twice in three attempts. Indy's top scorers connected with multi-point games, as Josh Shalla also had two goals. Three times, Kansas City cut a Fuel deficit to one, and each time, Indy responded with the next goal.
“It's huge. On the bench, we're saying ‘we're all right.' Then, we go and get the next one right away,” Nelson said. “It's good for the confidence, it's good for the bench, too, showing that we can score when we want to. We need to get better at playing with a lead, but we did a good job closing this one out.”
Nelson gave the Fuel a 2-0 lead with a pair of goals that bridged the first intermission - both rockets into the top shelf just below the crossbar. The first came on a strong forecheck by Darian Dziurzynski. He forced the puck loose where Neal collected it and fed Nelson for a one-timer. The second came on the power play, where Nelson waited at the center point for a lane and blasted a shot below the crossbar.
It was Nelson's first two-goal game and set the tone for the evening - Indy would get a two-goal lead and then restore it each time the visitors cut it to one.
“It was good,” Nelson said of scoring twice. “A couple of lanes opened up. I was just throwing it on net. I've been struggling all year to put the puck in the net, and it felt good to get those two.”
Neal and Nelson each scored twice and assisted on both of the others' goals.
KC cut the lead to one twice on second-period power play goals by Jared VanWormer, but Indy responded to the first with a goalmouth tuck by Shalla to restore a two-goal lead with 6:30 left. After VanWormer's second goal, Shalla's line hemmed the Mavericks in their own zone, which eventually led to a power play and a Fuel goal.
“We were good there, and even when they scored their second, we didn't score right away, but (Mathew) Thompson and Shalls and (Alex) Wides had a good shift with a lot of offensive zone time and put the pressure back on them,” John said. “We put them back on their heels and were able to score some goals. Those are big shifts, to make sure you don't play defense again and give them any momentum. I don't think we did.”
Indy seized momentum in the closing seconds of the second, drawing a penalty on Tyler Elbrecht with 11 seconds to go in the second, with Nelson winning the draw and then finding Neal in the slot for another goal to make it 4-2.
“You go into the end of the period, anytime you give up a goal, if you're on the other side of that, it's a little deflating,” Neal said. “That's a huge response. Our power play has been strong, and we've got a lot of skilled players out there to make some passes. That was huge.”
Again, KC scored the third period's first goal, but Shalla restored a two-goal lead with a high-glove blast on a rush up the left side with 7:53 left. Neal scored on a goalmouth deflection of Brandon Anselmini's point shot 64 seconds later, extending the lead and sealing the victory.
“Guys were going to the net,” John said. “You see where the goals were going in - pucks were going to the net, bodies were going to the net. They've got a good goaltender. If you're going to score on goalies at this level - or at any level - you've got to get bodies in front.”
1. Logan Nelson (Fuel) 2G/2A
2. Michael Neal (Fuel) 2G/2A
3. Josh Shalla (Fuel) 2G/A
1. The trio of Dziruzynski, Nelson and Neal had been put together in recent games and has paid dividends. Nelson has four goals and four assists in his last seven games, with points in five games. Neal has five goals and eight assists in his last eight games. Dziurzynski, who had an assist on the game's first goal, has three goals and seven assists in his last eight games. “Nealer sees the ice really well. Z takes the puck to the right areas,” Nelson said. “We're always on the right side of the puck. It's been a good line. We've got to keep playing simple and keep using each other.”
2. The Fuel have had 15 four-point games in their history, and only twice had two players tallied four points in a game. Darian Dziurzynski had two goals and two assists and Josh Shalla four assists in an 8-7 win over Quad City on Feb. 22. The other time was Jan. 29, 2016, when Peter Schneider and Adam Lapsansky both had four points in a win over the Evansville Icemen. Friday's game was Neal's second four-point game as a member of the Fuel and Nelson's first.
3. Neal reached a milestone with his 20th goal. It marked his first 20-goal season in the ECHL, although he had 22 goals combined between the Fuel and his team in Germany last season. He joins Dziurzynski (23 goals with Indy) and Shalla (22 goals) as 20-goal scorers on the Indy roster.
4. The Fuel's victory was a strong three-line effort. The Nelson-Dziurzynski-Neal line contributed a pair of even-strength goals and also factored in on both power play tallies. The trio of Alex Wideman, Shalla and rookie Mathew Thompson scored twice. Ryan Rupert and Matt Rupert were +1. Every player had a positive +/-.
5. The Fuel's ECHL-leading power play again set the tone, going 2-for-3. The Fuel scored twice on the power play in their three-goal second period. KC was 2-for-5, scoring on two of its three second-period opportunities before the Fuel had two third-period kills. “Our power play got us going a little bit,” John said. “It gave us some confidence.”
6. Indy is now 3-1-0 against Kansas City this season, having won the last three meetings. The two teams have one game remaining, which is Tuesday at Kansas City. Three of the Fuel's final six games are against the Mavericks and the Kalamazoo Wings - the other two teams in the three-team race for the final playoff spot - meaning the Fuel control their own destiny for the postseason.
Darian Dziurzynski-Logan Nelson-Michael Neal
Alex Wideman-Mathew Thompson-Josh Shalla
Matt Rupert-Ryan Rupert-Johnny McInnis
Jack Burton-Zach Miskovic
Brandon Anselmini-Robin Press
Jaynen Rissling-Riley Sweeney
BU: Colton Phinney
Scratches: Tommy Olczyk, Garrett Clarke, Cam Reid (IR)
Scoreboard watching: Kalamazoo beat Norfolk 3-2 Friday night, giving the Wings 74 points with four games to play. The Fuel and Mavericks both have 71 points. Indy has five games left and KC four. The Fuel are back in action at 7:35 p.m. Saturday at home against Fort Wayne, while Kalamazoo plays Saturday night at Norfolk. Kansas City is idle Saturday and next plays Monday at home against Tulsa.
Next up: The Fuel host Fort Wayne at 7:35 p.m. Saturday before traveling to Kansas City Tuesday for the final road game of the regular season.