The Kelly Cup Playoffs begin next week.
But the Indiana Farmers Coliseum will host playoff hockey Sunday afternoon.
The homestanding Indy Fuel meet the Kalamazoo Wings at 3:05 p.m. in a play-in game for the final spot in the ECHL's postseason, with the winner moving on.
Saturday night's 5-4 overtime loss by the Fuel to Toledo brought playoff-like intensity, both on the ice and from the 5,516 in attendance, and a preview of a potential first-round series. If the Fuel beat Kalamazoo Sunday, they would open the playoffs with Toledo.
Josh Shalla had a hat trick, scoring twice in the third period to rally the Fuel into a 4-3 lead, but Toledo's A.J. Jenks scored with 14 seconds left to tie the game, and Patrick McCarron won it with a wrist shot from the slot in overtime.
“We played a full 60,” Fuel coach Bernie John said. “Nobody got down. Even when they made the announcement that Kalamazoo lost, we didn't think ‘let's rest up.' That's the team we're going to play if we get in, we wanted to make sure we stayed playing hard against them. They've got a heck of a hockey team. It was a playoff atmosphere game, a playoff atmosphere crowd. It was a fun game to watch and a fun game to be a part of.”
Saturday's results - the Fuel gaining a point in the overtime loss coupled with Kalamazoo's 2-1 regulation loss to Brampton - leave Indy one point ahead of Kalamazoo entering Sunday's showdown.
Even as the results of Kalamazoo's loss made the outcome of Saturday's game largely moot, the Fuel and Walleye both were looking ahead.
“No matter what happened, we had to send a message, because if we get in, that's who we're going to play in the first round,” Shalla said. “We had to play hard, we had to play physical, we had to let them know that if it's us, it's not going to be an easy series.”
Shalla had a hat trick, with all three goals assisted by Alex Wideman. Nathan Noel - the line's center - had a pair of assists.
Noel set up Shalla at the far post with a perfect pass to give the Fuel a 1-0 lead 1:35 into the game, setting the tone for the night. While Toledo rallied to take a 3-2 lead, Shalla again provided two timely goals. He tied the game with 9:26 left on a strong carry-in and pass from below the goal line by Wideman. Shalla then gave the Fuel a lead with 2:27 to play with the hat trick goal, a blast off a faceoff.
Coupled with Mathew Thompson, who took a few shifts at center with Shalla and Wideman, the line had 14 of the Fuel's 38 shots, with Shalla launching eight. Shall and Noel were also both plus-3.
“Our line played great tonight,” Shalla said. “It felt like we were in their end the whole game - we'd start the cycle and have possession. We played really well - that was probably our best line effort in a while.”
The game featured playoff-like intensity from the opening drop of the puck, with tremendous speed and pace, with Shalla setting the tone with his early goal.
“Everybody was physical, everybody was engaged,” John said. “When guys are doing that and other guys see that, it makes everybody's game go up.”
A shift midway through the period saw the trio generate a number of prime scoring opportunities, with Shalla just missing wide on a feed in front, and Wideman hitting the post from the right circle, followed up by a good look from Darian Dziurzynski as the Fuel began to change out and continue the pressure, bringing lusty roars from one of the season's largest and most engaged crowds.
Matt Rupert made it 2-0 just over a minute into the second period by turning a blocked pass into a breakaway from his own blueline, which he buried past Toledo's Pat Nagle.
The Walleye responded with two goals in a three-minute span late in the period, a weak-side tip by Jenks and a top-shelf snipe by Dylan Sadowy on the rush. Connor Crisp gave Toledo the lead early in the third when a bouncing puck found him in front for a goal.
Shalla responded to give the Fuel a lead and Indy had a couple of cracks at the empty net, but a blocked shot by the Walleye in the final 30 seconds set up the tying goal. Jenks popped free in front and was able to find the net with 16 seconds to go before O'Connor won it 88 seconds into overtime.
The Fuel tried to get traffic in front of Nagle and fire shots from all angles.
“There was a lot of good puck movement,” John said. “Their guys can get the puck up and zip it around. Our guys were doing the same thing. We were getting pucks to the net. Compared to last night, we wanted to get bodies to the net and I think we did that. If you don't get bodies to the net on Nagle, you're not going to score on him. He's too good. We've got to make sure we follow that up with a good, solid effort (Sunday).”
Sunday will be the biggest game in the Fuel's short history. While the Fuel have a one-point lead, the Wings hold the tiebreakers, so the winner will move into the playoffs.
“It's 200-foot hockey, it's detailed hockey,” John said. “If you don't have the right play, make the smart play. Don't try to force things. We have to play our game. If we do that, we'll be all right. We want to get pucks going, try to play north hockey and put them on their heels early.”
Essentially, Game 72 will be a Game 7.
“It's win or go home,” Shalla said. “That's the bottom line tomorrow.”
1. Josh Shalla (Fuel) 3G
2. Patrick McCarron (TOL) GWG/A
3. A.J. Jenks (Fuel) 2G/A
1. The Fuel scored the first goal for the ninth consecutive game, which has been key in a 7-2-3 stretch to finish the season. “If you can make a team chase the game, it changes the whole momentum of the game,” John said. “Scoring that first goal is key. It sets the tempo, not just for the rest of the night, but for the early part of the game. It gets guys into a groove. Hopefully, we can get the first one tomorrow and go from there.”
2. Shalla's hat trick was the ninth in Fuel history and fourth this season. It was Shalla's third in a Fuel sweater - his other two came Dec. 27, 2016 at Fort Wayne and Jan. 19 earlier this season against Allen. Tommy Olczyk (Dec. 23 vs. Cincinnati) and Matt Iacopelli (Feb. 24 vs. Quad City) also have hat tricks this season.
3. Two Fuel players reached franchise milestones in Saturday's game. Alex Wideman became the first player to tally 100 points in a Fuel sweater. Shalla became the first Fuel player tally 50 goals, each achieving the feat in his second season with the team.
4. Another record fell as Shalla broke Garett Bembridge's record for most goals in a single season when he scored seconds into the game. Bembridge set the mark with 25 goals in 2014-15, the Fuel's inaugural season. The two came into the game tied, but Shalla's hat trick gives him 28 for the year.
5. Brandon Anselmini had an assist, giving him a helper in six consecutive games. It's the fourth-longest active streak in the ECHL.
6. The last time an Indianapolis hockey team played a winner-take-all game for playoff qualification on the final day of the season was 2001. With Gordie Howe in attendance, the Indianapolis Ice beat the Huntsville Tornado 4-1 to clinch a berth in the Central Hockey League's postseason. Fuel coach Bernie John was the Ice's third-leading scorer - and the league's top-scoring defenseman - that year with 85 points.
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, Matt Iacopelli
Next up: The Fuel host Kalamazoo at 3:05 p.m. Sunday