Throughout his career, Josh Shalla has been a goal scorer.
That's especially so when the opponent is wearing a Fort Wayne sweater.
Shalla continued his wizardry against the Komets Saturday night, scoring two first-period goals to help set the tone in a 5-1 victory that continued the Indy Fuel's playoff push.
With 73 points, Indy is now one point back of the Kalamazoo Wings for the final playoff spot in the Central Division with a game in hand. The Fuel are now 7-1-2 in their last 10 games.
“We're playing the right way right now,” Shalla said. “I think we're playing our best hockey of the season. With Kalamazoo losing tonight, we can win all of our games and we're in. Now, we truly can control our own fate. Everyone here wants to make the playoffs, and we're all playing that way.”
The Fuel had familiar ingredients in Saturday's victory - the ECHL's top power play and strong goaltending from Etienne Marcoux set the tone, the Fuel's top scorers found the net, and all three lines contributed on the scoresheet. Marcoux made 33 saves. Mathew Thompson, Robin Press, Logan Nelson and Alex Wideman also had multi-point games and four different players scored goals.
And, for Fort Wayne, it was another game where it couldn't solve Shalla. He has eight goals and 10 points against the Komets this season and has scored in every game. One-third of his 24 goals have come against the Fuel's in-state rival.
Since joining the Fuel midway through the 2016-17 year, he has 19 goals and 25 points in 14 games against Fort Wayne.
“I don't know what it is, but it clicks against them,” Shalla said. “I'll take them.”
The Fuel's victory was sparked by a strong start, with two goals a minute apart, both coming on the power play. Matt Rupert scored 10 seconds into the Fuel's first power play, giving Indy a lead 4:42 into the game. Twelve seconds later, the Fuel drew another penalty, and Shalla cashed in a feed from Robin Press on the ensuing power play to make it 2-0.
The start carried over from the finish Friday in a 6-3 win over Kansas City, another game fueled by two power play goals.
“We wanted to carry over what we did last night,” Shalla said. “Those two quick power play goals kind of deflated them. We just kept going after that and we didn't let them back in the game.”
Shalla gave the Fuel a 3-0 lead with 5:30 left in the opening period by burying a cross-ice feed from Thompson on the rush into a gaping side of the net.
“The play started with Wides through the middle,” Thompson said. “He's a great player. Just find space, he'll find you. Shalls can score at will. I knew coming over the line, if I just put it on his tape, it'll be in the net. It's nice when you can play with people the caliber and talent level they are.”
The goal chased Fort Wayne starter Cam Lanigan, but the Fuel were no kinder to Fort Wayne's Garrett Bartus, extending the lead in the second period with goals from Darian Dziurzynski and Thompson.
Extending the lead was critical, given Fort Wayne's firepower and penchant for comebacks this season - the Komets had points in 12 of 22 games they'd trailed after two periods entering Saturday night.
“We know they can score in bunches. We know they like to play offense. Anytime you're playing a big game at home, if you can get the first couple of goals, it's huge to get the momentum going,” Thompson said. “Obviously, it was a big momentum boost to get those and we just kept building throughout the game.”
There would be no comeback Saturday. Fort Wayne's Daniel Maggio scored 5:42 into the third, but Indy killed two power play opportunities and allowed only five third-period shots.
After building the early lead, the Fuel maintained it with a strong three-zone effort. Fort Wayne had few high-quality looks at the net, with Indy's defensemen clearing lanes and allowing Marcoux to see shots and gobble up rebounds. The game was an extension of Friday's 6-3 win over Kansas City.
“The first two periods were two of our best periods in a while,” Fuel coach Bernie John said. “It was feeding off last night. We started slow last night, but our second and third were really good, and tonight, our first and second were really good.”
The Fuel head to Kansas City Tuesday for another critical four-point swing game among teams scrambling for the final playoff spot in the Central Division. A Fuel win would put them in fourth place - and playoff position - heading into the season's final weekend.
“We've told them to enjoy this, but never be satisfied,” John said. “Expect more, want more. It's a good feeling in there. They're playing very confident. We've got to make sure we keep going.”
1. Josh Shalla (Fuel) 2G
2. Etienne Marcoux (Fuel) 33 saves
3. Mathew Thompson (Fuel) G/A
1. The Fuel power play has been smoking hot in recent games. They were 2-for-3 Friday in a 6-3 win over Kansas City, scoring six seconds into their second power play. Saturday, they scored 10 seconds into their first power play and in the first minute of the second. They had three power plays in the third period, but the game was well in hand by that point. Indy's power play is tops in the league at 23.1 percent. At home, the Fuel are 27.1 percent. “It starts with centers winning the draw. Presser and Rissling from the top are running it really well, controlling the play, controlling the puck, moving it to the right spots,” John said. “We've got shooters with Rupert and Shalla, but we've got good net-front presence with McInnis and Dziurzynski.”
2. Over the weekend, Shalla had four goals and an assist. In his last nine games, he has eight goals and three assists, with four multi-point games.
3. Darian Dziurzynski reached a milestone with his 25th goal - 24 of which have come with the Fuel, as he scored once before being acquired in a trade. Shalla also tallied his 24th of the season. The next goal for each will tie Garett Bembridge's team record of 25 goals with the Fuel in a season, set in 2014-15.
4. The Fuel penalty kill was a perfect 5-for-5 against a Fort Wayne power play with a lot of firepower. While the Komets were missing several key players, five of the top six scorers from the ECHL's highest-scoring team were in the lineup, including the league's top scorer Shawn Szydlowski. After surrendering two power play goals in Friday's win, the Fuel stressed an aggressive penalty kill, which resulted in several clears and few good looks. “After last night, Ryan (McGinnis, assistant coach) and I said ‘we've got to fix our PK.' It's going to win hockey games down the stretch, and if we get in the playoffs, it'll help us win games in the playoffs,” John said. “We've stressed being more aggressive and taking some things away. It's a positive sign.”
5. Indy finishes the season with a 3-6-0 record against Fort Wayne, but with wins in the last two meetings. In the Fuel's 7-1-2 stretch over the last 10 games, the Fuel have two wins each over Fort Wayne and Cincinnati, the Central Division's second and third-place teams. They Fuel are also 1-0-1 against Toledo, the team with the ECHL's top record, in that stretch.
6. Facing a team with as much offensive firepower as Fort Wayne puts a lot of focus on the defensive unit. While Fort Wayne had 34 shots, many were from the outside, as the Fuel defensemen cleared lanes and allowed Marcoux to stop 33. He came close to getting the Fuel's first shutout of the season. “They were good tonight, boxing out, getting sticks, allowing ET to make saves when he had to,” John said. “When there were scrums, they were digging in and helping him. It's unfortunate we couldn't get him a shutout, but we'll take the win.”
7. Alex Wideman had three assists in the game. He has points in seven of his last eight games, including three straight. It was his third three-point game of the season, all coming in his last 13 outings.
8. Robin Press also extended his scoring streak to three games with two assists. Press has two goals and seven assists over his last eight games. Logan Nelson had two assists and now has points in five of his last six games, tallying three goals and six assists in that stretch. Mathew Thompson, a rookie who recently finished his college career at Adrian, had his first career multi-point game. He has points in four of the five professional games he has played.
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 lost to Norfolk 2-1 Saturday night, allowing the Fuel to climb within a point of the Wings. Kalamazoo has 74 points with three games remaining - including the season finale April 8 at Indy. Indy has 73 points with four games left, with Tuesday's trip to Kansas City the next time on ice. Kansas City is now in sixth place with 71 points. The Mavericks did not play Friday and next play Monday at home against Tulsa, one night before hosting the Fuel.
Next up: The Fuel travel to Kansas City for a Tuesday night game, then return home for the season's final weekend. The next home game is at 7:35 p.m. Friday against Cincinnati.