FORT WAYNE, IN — It was a classic case of “close, but not close enough” for the Komets in Game 3 of the Central Division Finals against the Toledo Walleye.
A.J. Jenks‘ late third-period marker handed Fort Wayne its third straight consecutive one-goal loss of the series, putting the Komets on the brink of elimination.
Fort Wayne coach Gary Graham had a simple explanation for Toledo’s 3-0 lead.
“Here’s the difference: They get a 2-on-1, they bury it 10 out of 10 times. We get 2-on-1s, we don’t even shoot the puck. We don’t even get a shot off. We get a breakaway, we don’t even hit the net.”
Graham also pointed to Walleye goalie Jeff Lerg as the pivotal player of the series.
Toledo’s netminder recorded 33 saves, erasing scoring opportunities in just about every way imaginable. Lerg sprawled on a couple pucks, paddled away some weak shots, gloved several attempts and flat-out denied quality chance after quality chance down to the final buzzer.
Toledo gets the win because of this save by Jeff Lerg pic.twitter.com/OYHdq212z7
— Sin Bin Fuel (@SinBinFuel) May 4, 2017
The easy takeaway may be to suggest Fort Wayne fell because of inferiority inside its crease, but that’s not the case.
Garrett Bartus made a surprise start in favor of Pat Nagle and notched 32 saves while saving the turnover-prone Komets from giving up even more to the Walleye.
“Goaltending was not the reason we lost the game, that’s for sure,” Graham said.
The Komets had every opportunity to cut the series deficit to 2-1, even getting on the board first. Garrett Thompson tipped a Curtis Leonard shot less than one minute into the second period.
But a turnover led to Toledo’s first goal. Cody Sol lost the puck behind the net, and Zach Nastasiuk found a wide-open Jenks for the equalizer. He deked once from left-to-right to beat Bartus.
After Gabriel Desjardins pushed Fort Wayne to a 2-1 edge, a blocked shot led to a 2-on-1 for the ever-opportunistic Walleye. Kyle Bonis dished a pass to Evan Rankin, who buried his sixth goal of the postseason.
“For the most part, I thought we played a pretty good game,” Cazzola said. “Obviously we made a couple mistakes and they’re a good team. They’re gonna capitalize on the mistakes we made and that’s what they did tonight.”
Then in the third period, Lerg constantly made those crucial saves. He stole a chance from Mike Cazzola by pouncing on the puck well outside of the crease, stoned Thompson in front on multiple occasions and turned aside a Mike Embach breakaway, to name a few.
Lerg’s borderline heroics allowed Toledo to remain tied and later take the lead on Jenks’ second goal with 3:05 remaining in the contest. The Komets continued pressing and firing on net, but Lerg protected the 3-2 lead.
Game 4, which is slated for Friday night at 8 p.m. ET, is officially a win-or-go-home situation for Fort Wayne.
“We’ve got a positive group in here. We’ve got a close-knit group,” Cazzola said. “We’re fighting for our lives now and we’re gonna go out and try to have some fun with it.”