TOLEDO, Ohio – In the second part of a back-to-back, Fort Wayne made the short trip over to Toledo for game 5 of the Central Division Finals. In the prior night’s match up the Komets were able to tie up the series at 2-2 thanks to a 3-1 victory in front of their fans at War Memorial Coliseum. Now a crucial contest loomed as both teams looked to move closer to a Western Conference Finals berth. No change in starting goaltenders, as Pat Nagle and Michael Houser saw action once again.
As the game began it became clear that the officials were calling everything they saw on the ice during the first period. Within the first eight minutes of the game, Toledo had been assessed three penalties while Fort Wayne had to deal with two of its own. Of all of those resulting power plays, Fort Wayne was able to capitalize at the 4:18 mark after A.J. Jenks was called for a slash 13 seconds before. After receiving the puck Marc-Oliver Roy shot on Nagle who let the rebound go to the side of the net to a waiting Garrett Thompson who buried it for an early Komet lead.
Two minutes after the icebreaker, Fort Wayne would strike again. An odd man rush opportunity had Jason Binkley and Gabriel Desjardins breaking into the Toledo zone. Desjardins played it across for Binkley who took the shot, which Nagle was able to steer aside. Unfortunately for the netminder, the rebound went right onto the tape of Desjardins stick, who went short side for the 2-0 lead early in the game.
Despite another Walleye power play opportunity at 9:50, the period would not see any additional goals before the horn sounded.
Toledo and Fort Wayne went back and forth briefly to start the second before the visitors set up an offensive presence around the seven-minute mark. Fresh from reserves, Kevin Lohan was battling for the puck behind the net and after gaining possession made a huge mistake by throwing the puck into the slot. No Walleye was there to receive the pass, but Justin MacDonald certainly was. As soon as the puck hit his stick MacDonald ripped it past Nagle to make it a three-goal game at 7:12.
The wind had been sucked from the Walleye sails, but the team did not give up the fight. Another Fort Wayne attack was cut short by a Mason Baptista hooking call, which gave Toledo a chance to get back into the game with a little over four minutes left in the second. The power play unit went to work and peppered Houser, who had been sensational throughout the night. In a beautiful patience play by Mike Borkowski, he drew the Komet defender forward enough to open a passing lane to fellow Red Wings prospect Dylan Sadowy who had the easy tap in to make it a 3-1 game at 16:42.
Toledo continued to bring the pressure as the period ended, but were unable to narrow the margin any further.
Now with its back against the wall, Toledo came out with speed and drive to begin the third period. In what could have been the best offensive series of the night for the top seed, the Walleye peppered houser with shot after shot and had the entire Fort Wayne defense moving. But Houser continued his excellent play and kept Toledo from gaining any momentum for a comeback.
As soon as the Walleye attack had been quelled, the Komets rushed the opposite way to challenge Nagle once again. Fort Wayne blasted a shot from the blue line, which hit a body in front of the Toledo netminder to make it a three-goal game once again. Bobby Shea was credited for the goal at 2:56.
Try as they might, the Walleye simply couldn’t find an answer for Michael Houser throughout the third. By far the best period of hockey for Toledo, it simply wasn’t good enough to make a game of it down the stretch. Even with three power plays throughout the last 20 minutes, two of which had good offensive zone pressure, Houser refused to let anything else past him. As a result, Fort Wayne would win 4-1 and claim a 3-2 lead in the series.
The series shifts back to Fort Wayne for game 6 on Tuesday. If Toledo hopes to force a game 7, it must find a way to beat Houser, who is undoubtedly the MVP of these last two games for Fort Wayne. Also, the team as a whole needs to find a grove as it looked out of sync throughout game 5, with many passes off the mark and a lack of quality chances being generated prior to the end of the second/first part of the third. As for Fort Wayne, if it keeps doing what it is doing by controlling the pace and capitalizing on chances, it may very well earn a Western Conference Finals berth on Tuesday.