By Blake Sebring
of The News-Sentinel
CLICK HERE for Original Story
For the fifth year in a row, the Fort Wayne Komets have forgotten a lackluster first half by playing blazing-hot hockey as soon as the calendar flips into the new year. This is possibly the best example yet because they were 10 games under .500 after a 5-15-1 beginning, the second-worst start in the franchise's 59-year history.
Is it really that simple, that the Komets can just turn it on when they need to? Aren't the games in the first half equally as important?
If you want honest answers, then, yes they can, and no, the early games aren't as important, which means some fans will complain that they pay the same price for the games in the first half of the year. They also pay for playoff runs deep into the spring, which is when the players are more concerned about winning.
“I just think the games are more important late in the season,” Komets captain Colin Chaulk said. “For some reason, in the past we've won the ones that really count. It's not like we're in the locker room talking about it, but we've had good finishes.”
But turning it on after New Year's Eve is becoming something of a tradition in Fort Wayne. Maybe part of that is because the Komets expect to be playing more games per year than any other team and they know they have to be their strongest later in the season.
“This year with that much talent, we knew at some time things were going to turn around,” Mathieu Curadeau said. “There's a lot of experience on the team that knows the playoffs are coming, and the team gives a little bit more after Christmas. I've always been like that, better in the second half.”
No one knows why the Komets can't seem to get off to a fast start. They say coach Al Sims' systems aren't that hard to adjust to. The Komets regularly bring back 12-14 players each season, but that also means there are usually more rookies to keep everyone under the salary cap. It also seems to take time to set up defensive pairings.
“It's a couple of things, I think,” veteran left wing P.C. Drouin said. “We need time to jell as a team. Guys are finding their roles and where they fit on the team and then developing some chemistry on the lines. I remember a couple of years ago after our first championship, most of the guys came back and we started out on a tear and then some guys got called up so we slowed down a little bit. I think there's a lot of that, just getting familiar with everyone, figuring out your roles and where you fit on the team.”
Each year is unique, and it seems like team cohesiveness must be built from scratch. The good thing is that management seems willing and able to go out and find players to fill in the holes that develop. This year, they've traded for Tab Lardner, signed Dustin Molle as a free agent, brought Dan Lapointe and Chaulk back from Europe, and gotten Mike Ratchuk and Jon Mirasty on assignments from the American Hockey League.
“I also think we have maybe older guys who take a bit longer to get going,” Drouin said. “We have guys that have the ability to pick it up a notch a little bit. Fans hate to hear that, but if you have a different gear for the playoffs or the ability to pick it up when you need to, great. You focus even more and turn up the heat. We're showing that we have that ability.”
That's really the point, the veterans will say. Nobody remembers the games before January as long as you are ready to win the games in April and May.
“With the kind of veteran guys we have here, once you've been through a lot of playoff battles, you know it's not a sprint, it's a marathon,” goaltender Nick Boucher said. “The team that's really hitting its stride come playoff time is going to be in good shape. Look at Flint last year where they were the worst team in the league the first 2 1/2 months. Then they were one of the hottest teams down the stretch and no one wanted to play them in the playoffs. You want to be playing your best going into the playoffs, and that's what we're achieving right now.”
Right now the Komets are on their usual tear, going 11-2 over their last 13 games and outscoring opponents 47-27. There are 17 games left in the regular season, and no one wants to play them now, let alone during the playoffs.
“This is the way you want to play hockey in the second half of the season,” Sims said. “This is the way I want my teams going into the playoffs. It's helped us win championships the last three years. Hopefully if we can keep this going for a month, we're going to be very tough to beat.”