After a grueling stretch for the past four weeks, the Indy Fuel remain in a strong position for the ECHL's final month.
Despite falling 4-1 to the Utah Grizzlies Sunday, extending the Fuel's winless streak to four games, Indy remains one game out of a playoff spot after an extremely busy month that saw the team play 15 games in 24 days.
In that stretch, the Fuel have played four consecutive three-game weekends, three midweek games, and have not had more than two consecutive days off. Indy went 8-7-0 in that stretch and climbed into the thick of the Central Division playoff chase.
The Fuel will welcome a four-day break before heading into a critical three-game weekend that will open Friday with a home game against the third-place Cincinnati Cyclones, and continue Saturday with a trip to Kalamazoo to face the fourth-place Wings. Kalamazoo, which currently holds the final playoff spot in the Central Division, is two points ahead of the Fuel.
“Obviously, we've got a few days where we can get a little bit healthy,” Fuel coach Bernie John said. “We just played 17 games in 30 days. That's a lot of hockey with travel and absolutely no practice time. That's the hard part. I know every team goes through it, but this league is a developmental league. We had no practice time. We had three practices in that month, and we really had four or five guys have to miss due to injury
“We've got to make the hardest push we can. We've got a couple of these days to get our mindset.”
Indy was playing without defenseman Robin Press, the reigning ECHL Player of the Month who is in the midst of an 11-game scoring streak, after suffering an injury while blocking a shot Saturday. He is one of several players who will value the rest for the final stretch.
They'll also value the practice time.
“It will be nice to get a day off,” forward Alex Wideman said. “We haven't had many in the last couple of weeks. Rest is as important as anything else this time of year.”
Wideman scored the lone goal for the Fuel, a power play tally at 5:52 of the second period that tied the game at 1-1. He took a cross-ice pass from Ryan Rupert and fired it into the open side.
It was the only shot to get past Utah goaltender Joel Rumpel, who made 34 saves for the victory. Utah has come in sizzling hot and is now 8-1-1 since acquiring Rumpel, with a nine-game point streak. That run has pushed the Grizzles into the playoff chase in the Mountain Division.
The Fuel power play was 1-for-8 Sunday, including extended 5-on-3 situations, but provided Sunday's tally. Over the weekend, the Fuel were 2-for-14 with the man advantage.
“Our power play wasn't that great this weekend, but we were able to get into the zone and get a little bit of movement and something opened up,” Wideman said. “Ryan Rupert made a great pass. The goalie was still looking at (Rupert) when I got the puck and I shot it into the open side.”
The tie lasted 48 seconds. Utah's Brad Navin wired a shot off a faceoff that beat Fuel netminder Matt Tomkins to restore the Grizzlies' lead.
The Fuel had a big push in the second period, with Rumpel making big saves on tying bids from Darian Dziurzynski cutting to the net and Matt Iacopelli on the rebound in one sequence, and denying Wideman on the doorstep minutes later. The Rupert twins had great pressure in the opening minutes of the third, but Utah extended its lead on a long shot by Taylor Richart six minutes into the period, and added an insurance goal on a tip by Mitch Maxwell after a great feed from former Fuel forward Jake Marchment to the doorstep.
For the sixth time in eight games, the Fuel surrendered the first goal and found themselves chasing the game. After an even first period, Sam Babintsev gave Utah a lead with 1:28 left in the frame by driving the center lane and converting a centering pass from Maxwell.
The Fuel chasing the game throughout much of the afternoon put a damper on what had been an improved performance from Saturday's 5-2 loss to the Grizzlies.
“We were in it today, but we made a couple of mistakes - some were mine - and they ended up in the back of our net,” Wideman said.
The Fuel have 14 games remaining on the season, beginning with this weekend against Cincinnati, Kalamazoo and Toledo, with the first of the three at home. It's the last of five consecutive three-in-three weekends. The four days in between will be valuable.
“It will help us,” John said. “We can get our minds refreshed here and try and take the last four games we've played out of our system. Forget it - it's the past. We've got to do what we need to do. We've got 14 games. We've got to go one at a time and start something. The good thing is, we get to start at home so we don't have to travel. We can get some rest and stay at home.”
1. Mitch Maxwell (Utah) G/A
2. Taylor Richart (Utah) G
3. Joel Rumpel (Utah) 34 saves
1. The Fuel have played a lot of hockey in the last month, and ran into the hottest team in the ECHL this weekend. While they've been able to come back after surrendering the first goal in recent games - the previous four times they surrendered the opener, they won three games and tied it up once before giving up a late winner. This weekend, the Fuel were trailing for the majority of the game and couldn't make up a one-goal deficit going into the third period.
2. John mixed up the lines a bit Sunday, moving Josh Shalla to Logan Nelson's line, while moving Matt Iacopelli and Reed Seckel to the line with Darian Dziurzynski. Michael Neal, that trio's usual center, played in a number of different roles starting as the 10th forward, but the Fuel used a number of combinations throughout the game.
3. Wideman had an eight-game scoring streak snapped in Friday's game, but tallied points in the two games since. He has four goals and 11 assists in that 11-game span. Ryan Rupert, who had the assist on Wideman's goal, has points in two straight games.
4. Josh Shalla and Garrett Clarke had five shots each for the Fuel, who outshot Utah 35-29.
5. This weekend's games were the only two games between the Fuel and Grizzlies this season. The Fuel finished the season 4-4-1 against the Mountain Division this year - with all but three of those games coming against Wichita and Tulsa.
6. Of the Fuel's 14 games remaining, 13 are within the Central Division. The only non-division game on the remaining schedule is a March 25 trip to Brampton. The Fuel play Cincinnati four times and division leader Toledo three times. The Fuel are also scheduled to face Kansas City, Kalamazoo and Fort Wayne twice each. Especially with multiple games against Kansas City and Kalamazoo - with whom the Fuel are in a three-team battle for the fourth spot, and four left against third-place Cincinnati - the Fuel control their own playoff destiny.
7. With the upcoming finish - and currently two open roster spots - John is looking for ways to keep improving. That could be from other ECHL teams, or from NCAA teams who are finishing their seasons. “We can control what we want to do,” John said. “It depends on who we have. The trade deadline is looming, so we're going to keep our eyes and ears open and look and see what makes our hockey team better. There's also colleges that are done. We've talked to a few kids, some are staying at school, others we're looking at, they're upsetting teams and they're still playing. We'll be on the phone hard.”
8. On the subject of NCAA teams finishing their seasons, this is a prime time to add players not just for the playoff push, but to become mainstays in the future. Jack Burton, who plays on the team's top defensive pair, was a late-season signing out of college last season. “In this job, you can never stop recruiting,” John said. “You're recruiting Day 1 for the following year, because you're watching kids. We're looking at bringing in guys who want to come in, they end up liking it and want to stay here, and they hopefully become kids who will be here next year, build and guys that understand the way we want to play and the way we want to do things.”
Alex Wideman-Logan Nelson-Josh Shalla
Darian Dziurzynski-Reed Seckel-Matt Iacopelli
Matt Rupert-Ryan Rupert-Johnny McInnis
Jack Burton-Zach Miskovic
Jaynen Rissling-Brendan Mitchell
Garrett Clarke-Riley Sweeney
BU: Jonah Imoo
Scratches: Robin Press, Tommy Olczyk, Brandon Anselmini, Cam Reid
Next up: The Fuel host Cincinnati at 7:35 p.m. Friday for Nickelodeon Night. It opens a three-game weekend that also sees Indy travel to Kalamazoo and Toledo the next two days.