Fuel 2017-18 Season in Review – Part 1
Recapping the most successful year in Fuel historyApr 24, 2018
In many different ways, 2017-18 was a benchmark season for the Indy Fuel organization. After experiencing their fair share of growing pains through the club's first three years in the ECHL, Indy turned a corner in 2017-18, breaking regular season records on the ice and in the box office – earning its first-ever Kelly Cup Playoff berth in the process.
But the Fuel's first postseason berth didn't come to be without a fair amount of drama; rather it took a stunning second half turn-around to punch their ticket to the Central Division finals. In Part 1 of our Fuel Season in Review, we'll take a closer look at how the 2017-18 campaign progressed, and how Indy went from last place in the Central Division to clinching a playoff spot on the last day of the regular season.
A FRESH START
Coming off of a challenging 2016-17 campaign that saw them finish with a 23-42-3-4 record, Indy entered the 2017 preseason in many ways indistinguisable from the team that ended sixth in the Central Division the year before. With a year of experience and hindsight under his belt, Head Coach Bernie John returned with some front office support in the form of Ryan McGinnis, the first full-time assistant coach in Fuel history.
The tandem rebuilt Indy's roster from the ground up, bringing in a multitude of new faces to surround a few select pieces retained from the 2016-17 Fuel contingent. Only six of the 18 players on the Fuel 2017-18 Opening Night roster had been with the team the previous season.
Newcomers Ryan Rupert and Cam Reid joined 2016-17 leading scorers Matt Rupert and Alex Wideman up front, while Garrett Clarke, AHL-assignee Brandon Anselmini and rookie Jack Burton joined Zach Miskovic on the blue line. In net, the Fuel were planning to look toward a pair of first-year netminders assigned to them from the Chicago system: Collin Delia (under contract with the Blackhawks) and Matt Tomkins (on a Rockford deal). Providing further depth between the pipes was a rookie out of the University of New Brunswick named Étienne Marcoux.
Despite entering the season with a heightened sense of anticipation and optimism from the year prior, the 2017-18 Fuel faced some early adversity. With five of its first six games taking place away from home, Indy struggled to get momentum in the opening weeks of the season. Starting with a pair of tough road swings in Wichita and Florida in October, the Fuel started 2-2-1 before suffering a seven game winless streak from Oct. 28 to Nov. 14., which dropped them to the Central Division basement after the first month of the season.
After snapping the skid with a pair of emphatic victories at Indiana Farmers Coliseum on Nov. 17 (6-2 vs. Kalamazoo) and 18 (4-3 vs. Tulsa), the Fuel began to regain some confidence as the calendar turned to December. However, with only a .500 record to show from late November to the Christmas break, Indy had a hard time making up distance in the standings.
A major reason for the Fuel's slow start came from the team's difficulties away from home. Indy managed only a 1-8-2-1 record through its first 12 road games dating up to Dec. 15, with the lone victory coming on Oct. 27 in Estero, Fla. against the Florida Everblades.
Even with the early struggles, things all started to come around around the holiday season when a few in-season acquisitions entered the scene.
TURNING THE CORNER
Found in an attempt to infuse some needed energy into the Fuel forward corps and to fill a scoring gap left in the wake of Geoff Walker's early departure to Europe, the additions of Johnny McInnis and Darian Dziurzynski served as a catalyst for Indy's second-half resurgence.
Claimed off of waivers from the South Carolina Stingrays on Nov. 23, McInnis gave the Fuel a two-way forward that was as adept at scoring goals as he was blocking shots, and a perfect piece to slot in alongside Matt and Ryan Rupert. Looking for more offensive depth, Indy acquired Dziurzynski from the Rapid City Rush just a month later in exchange for future considerations.
After tallying only five points in 18 games to start the season with Toledo and Rapid City, Dziurzynski took his game to a new level upon his arrival to Central Indiana. The sixth year professional nearly produced at a point-per-game pace, tallying 24 goals and 22 assists in 47 games with the Fuel.
With the two new offensive weapons in the mix, Indy started to pile up points in the standings. Beginning with a wild 7-4 victory over Cincinnati at Indiana Farmers Coliseum on Dec. 23 (Dziurzynski's debut), the Fuel skated to an 11-5 record over their next 16 games to climb back to .500 before the end of January.
Another factor for Indy's success around the All-Star Break was the return of 2016-17 leading goal scorer Josh Shalla. After starting the season with the EIHL's Nottingham Panthers, the sniper re-joined the Fuel on Jan. 4, and immediately picked up where he left off, piling up seven goals and two assists over his first five games from Jan. 5 to 19.
The rejuvenated Indy squad continued to pick up steam in February, posting an 8-5 record during the busiest stretch of the club's 2017-18 schedule. In a stretch that saw them play 11 games in a span of 16 days from Feb. 8-24, the Fuel pulled through with an impressive mark of 8-3.
Finding his club six points out of a playoff spot in the final week of February, John pulled the trigger on a pair of moves leading up to the ECHL's trade deadline that set the stage for Indy's playoff push. The Fuel swapped defensemen with the Wheeling Nailers on Feb. 20, receiving Jaynen Rissling in exchange for Nolan Descoteaux, before picking up forward Logan Nelson from the Fort Wayne Komets the following day in return for rookie defenseman Anthony Cortese.
THE FINAL PUSH
The month of March got off to a rocky start when Indy – just after winning four straight games at home – dropped four in a row, including a pair of lopside home decisions aginst the Utah Oilers. Still in sixth place in the Central Division standings and five points back from a playoff spot as of March 9, the Fuel put the throttle down and became one of the most dangerous teams in the ECHL over the last few weeks of the regular season.
Following Indy's four-game skid to begin March, Indy picked up points in 12 of its last 14 regular season games (9-2-3-0), and lost in regulation just once over its final 10 (6-1-3-0). Needing as many points as possible to catch the Kalamazoo Wings and Kansas City Mavericks, the Fuel seized a pair of huge home wins against Fort Wayne on March 23 and 31, and went undefeated in regulation over their last three games against Toledo (1-0-2). Following a 4-1 win in Kansas City on April 3, the playoff race was down to Indy and Kalamazoo for the fourth and final spot in the Central Division.
That race was not decided until the final day of the regular season, when the Wings visited Indiana Farmers Coliseum for what was essentially a play-in game for the right to take on Toledo in the Central Division Semifinals. First-period goals from Alex Wideman and Logan Nelson gave Indy an early 2-0 lead, while Étienne Marcoux delivered a stellar 31-save performance to secure the Fuel the first playoff berth in the four-year history of the franchise.
CENTRAL DIVISION SEMIFINALS
Indy's reward for winning its way to the Kelly Cup Playoffs was a first-round matchup with the Walleye, the top team in the Western Conference during the regular season. Making matters more difficult were injuries that sent the Fuel into Game 1 without their top defenseman (Robin Press) and forwards Nelson and Matheson Iacopelli.
Despite being bit by the injury bug, Indy gave Toledo everything it could handle, starting with a pair of razor-thin games at the Huntington Center. The two clubs battled into double overtime in Game 1, before Walleye forward Kyle Bonis scored to put Toledo on top in the series with a 4-3 victory. In Game 2, it took a two-goal third period from Toledo to fend off an upset minded Fuel club in what was a second-straight 4-3 triumph for the Walleye.
As the series shifted to Indianapolis, the two teams continued to play each other excruciatingly close, but Toledo ended up taking Games 3 and 4 to sweep the best-of-seven series four games to zero. Two goals from Kyle Bonis and an empty netter from A.J. Jenks gave the Walleye a 3-1 victory in Game 3, before Christain Hilbrich scored in double overtime to clinch the sweep for Toledo with a 3-2 win in Game 4.
While their stay in the 2018 Kelly Cup Playoffs was short-lived, the 2017-18 Indy Fuel still set a new standard for the young franchise. After a 23-win season in 2016-17, Coach John and the Fuel improved to a 36-10-5-1 mark, setting club records in points (78), wins (36) and road wins (16) in the process. They rose from the Central Division basement in mid November to earn the first playoff berth in the team's history, where they went toe-to-toe with one of the ECHL's perennial powerhouses.