That's all the Indy Fuel needed to claim their first ECHL Kelly Cup Playoffs berth.
Alex Wideman and Logan Nelson scored two goals in that span of the first period Sunday afternoon to lift the Fuel to a 2-1 victory over the Kalamazoo Wings at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum.
When the final horn sounded, the Fuel players rushed off the bench to mob goaltender Etienne Marcoux, whose 31-save performance helped seal the victory and clinch a playoff berth on the season's final day.
“(The playoffs are) what our goal was from Day 1,” Fuel defenseman Zach Miskovic said. “To be able to accomplish our initial goal is huge. Now, it's the second season. Now, we've got to regroup and prepare ourselves for next Friday.”
The Fuel will open the best-of-7 first-round series Friday in Toledo. After Sunday's Game 2, the series will move to Indy April. 18.
“This is what you always play for, the second season,” Fuel coach Bernie John said. “It's going to be fun.”
While it took 40 seconds to seize the lead in Sunday's playoff clincher, the path to the second season was much longer. The Fuel suffered an early seven-game winless streak. They were 8-14-2 just before Christmas. They had a few bumps along the way climbing back into contention - including a four-game losing streak in early March that might have made playoff contention difficult. But since March 9, the Fuel went 9-2-3, with each win climbing Indy closer and closer to the race for the final playoff spot.
It finally set up a winner-take-all game Sunday, in which the Fuel were able to seize the lead early and hold on late against the desperate Wings.
“It's amazing. We've been in playoff mode for the last month and a half,” Marcoux said. “We knew there was a chance this game was going to end up determining who was going to get in. The crowd was awesome tonight, they gave us a lot of energy, and we came out strong.”
With Sunday's game being a play-in for the postseason, it had a playoff feel from the opening drop - intense, fast-paced, physical and structured.
The Fuel broke through first 6:29 in, when Alex Wideman forced a turnover on the forecheck and fed Josh Shalla in the slot. Veteran Kalamazoo netminder Joel Martin made the initial save, but the rebound went right to Wideman at the side of the net, who buried it to give Indy a lead.
“Forechecking is crucial. No defenseman likes to get hit along the boards,” Wideman said. “I was able to pry it loose from the defenseman and get it to Shalls. He's usually the goal-scorer. I try to find him all the time. The goalie made a nice save and I was Johnny on the spot and was able to put home an empty-netter.”
On the next shift, Logan Nelson jammed home a rebound of Michael Neal's shot 40 seconds later to extend the lead to 2-0.
It would be all the offense the Fuel would need.
“Every shift after a goal for or against is always the biggest,” Wideman said. “Either they score, or we keep the momentum and we score. That was probably the biggest goal of the year.”
Marcoux made sure of it. He made four saves on a Kalamazoo power play in the second period among his 13 stops in the period. In the third, Kalamazoo generated pressure off the opening faceoff, and it eventually paid off when Aaron Irving fired a shot through traffic from the right point, which Justin Taylor redirected into the net for his 35th goal.
“It's all about the next shot. They got an early goal (in the third), but that doesn't change my game,” Marcoux said. “I've got to make the next save. I kept telling myself, ‘the next shot, the next shot.' We knew they were going to push. The guys did a good job. I made the first save, I could see the first shot, they were clearing the rebounds.”
Kalamazoo followed with momentum, but Marcoux came up big each time, as did a Fuel defense that was sprawling out to block shots and try to keep the play outside.
The Wings' last good chance came with two and a half minutes left, when Eric Jutzi was free in front, but couldn't get a stick on a goalmouth pass.
But the Fuel were winning pucks, clearing lanes and keeping a strong defensive posture in their own zone, despite playing down a defenseman, as Robin Press left in the second period with an apparent injury.
“If we were in the other scenario, we'd have been throwing the kitchen sink at them like they did to us,” John said. “They came hard and they had some opportunities. (Marcoux) had to be good, but not only ET. There were a lot of guys blocking shots, making plays to get pucks out, doing the little things to be successful.”
With two minutes left, the Wings tried to pull goaltender Joel Martin, but a heavy forecheck from Neal, Darian Dziurzynski and Logan Nelson kept the Wings hemmed into their own zone for a minute. When they finally entered the zone and got Martin off for an extra attacker, a wild final sequence ensued with bodies flying everywhere at the puck. Marcoux had to make one late save, and Matt Rupert and Ryan Rupert cleared the puck to center as the horn sounded.
“You knew they were going to throw everything they had. We were expecting that,” Wideman said. “The D played great. Presser was out half the game, but those guys stayed with it, the forwards getting it out on the blueline. Sometimes, getting it out on the blueline Is as important as scoring a goal. I think we did a great job. I'm glad we were able to finish the job. Now, we move on.”
Move on, the Fuel will do. Right into the postseason.
“We have a great group of guys in the locker room that really believe in each other,” Miskovic said. “It really showed tonight. We're going to enjoy this moment tonight and regroup and prepare ourselves for Friday. I'm really excited, really proud of the moment, hopefully we can build on it.”
1. Etienne Marcoux (Fuel) 31 saves
2. Logan Nelson (Fuel) GWG
3. Alex Wideman (Fuel) G
1. Sunday's game was playoff hockey from the start - fast, physical, well-played, both teams playing cautiously and making simple plays as to not make a mistake. In a playoff game, the first goal is huge, and to follow it up with a second set the tone for the night. Every shift matters, and the Fuel won it on back-to-back shifts in the opening period, not necessarily with Kalamazoo mistakes, but with good, hard, simple hockey plays.
2. Kalamazoo threw the kitchen sink at the Fuel in the third period, and the Fuel defense held. As Wideman said, sometimes, just getting the puck out of the zone is as important as scoring a goal, by stunting momentum. But the biggest shift of the game came with two minutes left, when Neal and Dziurzynski's relentless forecheck forced the Wings to regroup twice and wouldn't allow them to pull Martin.
3. Sunday's victory also set Fuel records for most wins in a season (36), tied a record for most home wins (20), set a record for best home record (20-14-2). The Fuel also set team records for most goals (242) and penalty minutes (1,195). Zach Miskovic was the only Fuel player to appear in all 72 games. Josh Shalla set a team record for goals in a season (28). Robin Press set marks for most points by a defenseman (44) and power-play points (20). Garrett Clarke shattered the team single-season PIM record (259). Ryan Rupert set the marks for most shorthanded goals (4) and points (6), as well as tying Kyle Stroh's mark for most OT goals (2). Michael Neal's five game-winning goals tied a team record.
4. Michael Neal finishes the season with the team lead in points (52), Shalla in goals (28) and Press in assists (34). Press is also the +/- leader with a plus-8. The Fuel had seven players score at least 15 goals in a Fuel sweater, and three topped 20 with the Fuel - Shalla, Darian Dziurzynski (24) and Neal (20).
5. The Fuel finish the season with the ECHL's top power play at 22.8 percent. In special teams index - adding the power play and penalty kill percentages together - the Fuel were third at 105.5, behind South Carolina (108.3) and Toledo (105.6). Special teams were not a factor Sunday - the Fuel were shorthanded twice and on the power play once, killing off both.
6. Josh Shalla tallied points in nine of his last 11 games, with the assist on Wideman's goal. Mathew Thompson, who had the second assist on that goal, tallied points in five of the seven ECHL games he has played this season. Wideman tallied a point in 18 of his last 21 games.
7. The Fuel defensive pair of Jaynen Rissling and Riley Sweeney was on the ice for both goals the team scored, both finishing plus-2 on the night. One of the real keys for the Fuel has been depth - production from all three lines and all three defensive pairings. That will also be critical in the postseason.
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 open the Kelly Cup Playoffs with Game 1 Friday at Toledo.