The Indy Fuel had an opportunity to slightly expand their hold on the final playoff spot in the ECHL's Central Division Friday night.
It didn't materialize as the Fuel would have hoped, as Cincinnati seized control with four goals in a 10-minute span of the second period. That stretch turned the tide in a 5-2 Fuel loss to the Cyclones.
The loss snapped a seven-game unbeaten streak for the Fuel, but left them tied for playoff position, as the Fuel and Kalamazoo each have 75 points. The two teams appear to be headed to a showdown for that final spot when the Fuel and Wings meet Sunday afternoon at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum.
Both teams play at their respective home rinks Saturday night - the Fuel facing Toledo and Kalamazoo meeting Brampton - before their Sunday meeting. Kalamazoo currently holds the tiebreaker with one more regulation/overtime win than Indy. It is the lone playoff spot yet to be decided.
“We've just got to have a short-term memory. We've been hot lately,” said Fuel forward Johnny McInnis, who had a goal and an assist in the loss. “We need to get pucks and bodies to the net. We did that a little bit tonight, but we didn't do enough of it. We've got to do it consistently this time of year.”
Things started well for the Fuel, who were firing from all angles at old friend Hayden Stewart, the Cyclones' rookie goaltender, and broke through when Matt Rupert deflected Johnny McInnis' point shot over Stewart's shoulder for a 1-0 lead the Fuel carried into the first intermission.
But two goals in 36 seconds turned the tide - a breakaway from his own blueline for Winston Day Chief, followed by a goal off the rush by Daniel Muzito-Bagenda - giving Cincinnati a brief lead. The Fuel again answered - McInnis got to a rebound of Brandon Anselmini's shot from the point - and had an opportunity to take the lead with a mid-period power play.
Indy had early pressure and a player going down early in the power play drew the ire of fans, but the Fuel were eventually unable to score - in a matchup of the league's top two PP units, the Fuel were 0-for-3 while Cincinnati was 1-for-4.
“They've got the No. 2 power play in the league, we've got the No. 1, but we didn't get one and they did,” McInnis said. “We've got to win the special teams battle.”
The Cyclones scored the game-winner a minute after the penalty expired as Justin Vaive pounced on a rebound in the crease midway through the period to re-take the lead. Just over a minute later, Mike Barrett scored a power play goal to extend the Cyclones' lead to 4-2.
“We had a good first (period). The second, we just stopped skating,” Fuel coach Bernie John said. “Even when we tied it, we looked like we had no answer. We didn't put pressure on the puck. We talked in our meeting that (Vaive) is dangerous in front and we have to box him out, we don't get to him and he scores. Those are little things we've talked about that we have to do. If we're going to make it and get in, we're going to have to do them the next night.”
Making his third start since finishing his college career at Cornell, Stewart made 39 saves in the Cincinnati net. While he shared net duties in junior with the Indiana Ice four years ago, he's back in a top role for the first time since then, as he had primarily been a backup in college. Injuries and callups have the Cyclones' net in the hands of rookies.
Stewart got some help from the iron - Zach Miskovic rang the post early in the third with the Fuel on the power play, one of two posts hit by Indy in the game - and a defense that collapsed in front and allowed the Fuel few shooting lanes in the third. Logan Nelson and McInnis also had strong looks in the third that Stewart was able to stop.
“(Stewart) has played a couple of games in this league so far, but you've got to get bodies and make it uncomfortable for him,” John said. “He saw a lot of shots we took. Any goalie in this league, they're going to stop most of them. We started to make a push and we had some chances, but we were chasing the game - which we've been doing to other teams lately. It makes you play different and take different opportunities.”
The Fuel now look forward to another pivotal game against division-leading Toledo, who will be the first-round opponent for whomever takes the playoff spot that's up for grabs this weekend.
“Everybody in that room knows what's at stake here. If we take care of business the next two games, we're fine,” McInnis said. “That's the mindset. We've had to win every game, maybe since I got here. Our mindset is the same. It's been playoff hockey for a month. We'll sleep on it and we'll be back tomorrow.”
1. Daniel Muzito-Bagenda (CIN) G/A
2. Johnny McInnis (Fuel) G/A
3. Hayden Stewart (CIN) 39 saves
1. The playoff math is becoming more clear - nearly all roads lead to the spot being decided when the Fuel and Kalamazoo meet Sunday. Kalamazoo can clinch with a regulation or overtime win over Brampton coupled with a Fuel regulation loss to Toledo. Any other combination leaves the playoff spot up for grabs in Sunday's showdown.
2. The Fuel scored the game's first goal for the eighth consecutive time, taking a lead into the first intermission - but this was the first time in those eight games Indy didn't come away with at least a standings point. Momentum began to turn on Day Chief's breakaway goal and remained with Cincinnati the rest of the evening.
3. McInnis had his first two-point game since against Toledo. Matt Rupert had his first two-point game since March 17 against Toledo. The two have been linemates much of the time since McInnis was acquired in November, centered by Ryan Rupert. With the Fuel, the trio has combined for 53 goals - with Matt Rupert and McInnis tallying 18 and Ryan 17. “I love playing with those guys,” McInnis said. “I played with them in the past and now I'm playing with them here. It's always been the same recipe - shoot the puck, two bodies go to the net and someone's going to get a greasy one.”
4. One piece that will likely be overlooked because of the result was a 5-on-3 penalty kill by the Fuel that bridged the second intermission. Cincinnati got two shots on the power play, but the Fuel were aggressive to pucks and didn't allow the Cyclones' dangerous power play a high-quality look.
5. Brandon Anselmini had the first assist on McInnis' goal, giving him a five-game assist streak.
6. Alex Wideman had eight shots for the Fuel, who launched 41 at the Cincinnati net.
7. The Fuel finish the regular season 7-3-0 against Cincinnati, including 5-1-0 at home.
Darian Dziurzynski-Logan Nelson-Michael Neal
Alex Wideman-Nathan Noel-Josh Shalla
Matt Rupert-Ryan Rupert-Johnny McInnis
Jack Burton-Zach Miskovic
Brandon Aneselmini-Robin Press
Jaynen Rissling-Riley Sweeney
BU: Colton Phinney
Scratches: Tommy Olczyk, Garrett Clarke, Mathew Thompson, Reed Seckel
Next up: The Fuel host Toledo at 7:35 p.m. Saturday for Fan Appreciation Night