The first home playoff game in the Indy Fuel's franchise history couldn't have started much better Wednesday evening.
Mathew Thompson scored 140 seconds into the game, whipping a spirited crowd hungry for postseason hockey into a frenzy.
But Toledo was able to turn the tables thanks to a pair of goals from Kyle Bonis and a stellar effort in net by goaltender Pat Nagle to post a 3-1 victory over the Fuel in Game 3 of the Central Division Semifinal, pushing Indy to the brink of elimination.
The Fuel trail the best-of-seven series three games to none and need to win Thursday's Game 4 at home to extend the series.
After clinching a playoff berth in the regular season's final game 10 days ago, the Fuel are no strangers to battling to extend their season. They'll have to do it again Thursday in a series where all three games have been won by razor-thin margins. Both games in Toledo were one-goal affairs, and Wednesday's Game 3 was until the final minute.
“We've been in all three games,” Thompson said. “A bounce here or there, the series could be 2-1 them or 2-1 us. They've all been really close games. We need to realize we're getting the chances. We just have to bear down. It's playoff hockey. You're not going to get a lot of time and space, and when you do get those chances, you've got to make them count.”
Bonis tied the game on a 5-on-3 power-play goal in the second period, then gave the Walleye the lead midway through the third, scoring on a breakaway. An empty-netter sealed the Toledo victory.
Wednesday's contest was a typical playoff game, where tight defense means high-quality scoring chances are few, and capitalizing on those opportunities is critical.
Toledo had the opening in the third after a physical start to the period. With a 4-on-4 situation creating a little more open ice, a Fuel blueliner pinched looking to make a play on a loose puck, which Toledo's Beau Schmitz won, and then lifted a flip pass into the neutral zone. Bonis caught the puck in stride past the defense and beat Fuel netminder Etienne Marcoux on the stick side for the go-ahead goal.
“it's a 50/50 puck. We've got to err on the side of caution,” Fuel coach Bernie John said. “It was a smart play, a great flip and when you give one of the best goal-scorers in our league an opportunity to score, it's going to be tough for our goaltender.”
Indy had a pair of chances to tie in the ensuing minutes. Matt Rupert hit the post with a tip of Johnny McInnis' point shot. On the ensuing shift, Thompson drove the puck to the net, but Nagle slammed the door.
Nagle stopped 31 shots, winning by a razor-thin margin for the third consecutive games. Both of the Walleye wins in Toledo were by one goal.
“We had 32 shots, but too many were not contested,” John said. “We talked about getting to the net and that's how we scored our first goal. We were watching too much hoping he would kick out rebounds. A guy like Nagle is too good and he's not going to kick out rebounds. We've got to get traffic in front of him. We have to make it uncomfortable and make it hard.”
Marcoux stopped 34 shots in the Fuel net.
“He was phenomenal,” Thompson said. “He's given us a chance every night. That's all you can ask from your goalie.”
Thompson gave the Fuel a lead by potting a rebound for his first career playoff goal. Michael Neal drove the left side to the crease and jammed the puck off Nagle's pads. Thompson drove the center lane and followed up by pushing the puck through the five-hole to get Indy on the board.
“It's the job nobody wants to do because you open up space for other guys,” Thompson said. “Someone's got to drive middle. That's a case where the rebound kicked out to me.”
The Fuel had chances to extend the lead, earning three power plays in the opening period. The first yielded three shots and several good looks, but Indy was unable to score. The Fuel were 0-for-5 on the power play.
“We're missing key guys on our special teams,” John said. “The urgency wasn't there. That could've been big for us, especially in the first, if we could've got that second one. Those things happen.”
Toledo was able to take advantage of its first power play, turning into an extended 5-on-3. Bonis caught the puck at the right circle, waited for a screen and roofed a shot to tie the game. The Walleye were 1-for-3 with the man advantage, and that turned the tables in another close game.
“At the end of the day, they're finding a way to get that extra goal,” John said. “We've got to battle, come out and get the lead, and we've got to find a way to get the second one, hopefully the third one, and push from there. The mindset won't change. We'll take it one period at a time, one game at a time and go from there.”
1. Kyle Bonis (TOL) 2G
2. Pat Nagle (TOL) 31 saves
3. Etienne Marcoux (Fuel) 34 saves
1. With the last shift, coach Bernie John had the opportunity to get the last change and the matchups he wanted. The Fuel usually had the trio of the Rupert brothers and Johnny McInnis out against Toledo's Shane Berschbach and A.J. Jenks, while skating Nathan Noel, Alex Wideman and Josh Shalla against Bonis' line with Christian Hilbrich and Tyler Barnes.
2. While the Fuel skated the same 16 players from Sunday's Game 2, John made one lineup change. Mathew Thompson and Nathan Noel flipped lines, with Thompson skating between Darian Dziurzynski and Michael Neal. The Fuel were missing a handful of key players again, as Logan Nelson missed his second straight game. Robin Press and Matt Iacopelli have not yet played in the postseason after suffering injuries in the regular season's final weekend.
3. The game showed a bit of snarl, especially late in the second period, when the penalty boxes each contained three players sent off for matching minors in two different incidents.
4. Hilbrich, Bonis and Barnes have eight of Toledo's 11 goals in the series. All three have called what is now the Indiana Farmers Coliseum home at one time. Bonis and Hilbrich played junior hockey in Indy, while Barnes suited up for the Fuel in 2016-17. Barnes had two assists.
5. Etienne Marcoux was spectacular again in the contest. As the Fuel began pressing for the go-ahead goal after falling behind, Marcoux made several key stops, including stuffing Connor Crisp on a clean breakaway with eight minutes left, moments after Matt Rupert hit the post with a deflection on the other end.
6. Chris Rygus made his home debut. After helping lead St. Norbert to the NCAA Div. III championship this spring, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound blueliner was an emergency addition to the playoff roster. He had several shifts during Wednesday's game - and made a number of fans by quoting the Metallica song “Fuel” during a between-periods interview.
7. With Thompson finding the net, the Fuel's seven goals in the postseason have been scored by seven different players. Ryan Rupert, who was held off the scoresheet Wednesday, leads the team with three points.
Darian Dziurzynski-Mathew Thompson-Michael Neal
Alex Wideman-Nathan Noel-Josh Shalla
Matt Rupert-Ryan Rupert-Johnny McInnis
Jack Burton-Zach Miskovic
Jaynen Rissling-Chris Rygus
Brandon Anselmini-Riley Sweeney
BU: Colton Phinney
Scratches: Robin Press, Matt Iacopelli, Logan Nelson, Garrett Clarke
Shane Berschbach-A.J. Jenks-Dylan Sadoway
Christian Hilbrich-Kyle Bonis-Tyler Barnes
Connor Crisp-Colin Jacobs-Austen Brassard
Kevin Tansey-Beau Schmitz
Ryan Obuchowski-Simon Denis
Jared Wilson-Patrick McCarron
BU: Angus Redmond
Next up: The Fuel host Toledo in Game 4 of the Central Division Semifinal at 7:05 p.m. Thursday at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum.