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It had been “only” about six weeks since Dean Ouellet had seen game action for the Fort Wayne Komets, but to the center from New Brunswick, it felt like an eternity.
Ouellet returned Thursday night for Game 3 of the ECHL Eastern Conference quarterfinals against Reading, appearing for the first time since suffering a concussion March 9.
He made a big splash, notching an unassisted goal to put the Komets up a pair in the second period.
“It was really hard (being out),” said Ouellet after the 5-1 victory that put Fort Wayne up 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. “I haven't missed too many games in my career, and being out and seeing the boys battle hard to get into the playoffs … it was hard.”
Ouellet has been working to get back in game shape for a few weeks, although he admitted it was tough to stay patient once he felt he was good enough to give it a go, especially the first two games of the series with Reading.
“Come playoff time you want to do everything for your team,” Ouellet said. “I waited those two games and came out tonight and the boys played well and came out on top.”
Komets coach Gary Graham and the team trainers worked to make sure Ouellet was not only recovered from his concussion but also ready to fully contribute before he returned.
“We have been working with Dean, getting him back into shape,” Graham said. “We were skating him real hard last week. In Reading we were conditioning skating him.
“We knew it was only a matter of time until he got back in the lineup.”
Ouellet said he felt the rust early but shook it off by the second period. He was impressive Thursday on a fourth line that also saw Sy Nutkevitch make some big plays.
“I feel like I am in pretty good game shape coming back,” Ouellet said.
The Komets made an impressive 45 shots on goal Thursday, but Fort Wayne goalie Ben Meisner took some heavy fire as well as Reading put 37 shots on net.
The Komets did an impressive job of clearing the front of the net for the majority of the night, giving Meisner clean looks at shots.
With 36 saves Thursday, Meisner's goals-against average is now .954 for the series.
“I feel at home playing those (types of) games,” Meisner said. “I've played on a lot of teams where I saw a lot of biscuits. The shot count might have been high, but the quality of opportunity wasn't always that high.”
Reading was never able to get clean looks in the slot against Meisner, the opposite of what the Komets had on the other end when they were able to beat Riley Gill three times in front of the net.
But with clean looks at the shooters comes an added pressure for goaltenders.
“It is easier in one regard, but in another it's not,” Meisner said. “When you see the puck clean, you better control it or else that's on you. When I see pucks and I can control them it's a good thing for the team, but if I see pucks and they hit me and I can't really control them, it can really add a lot of chaos.”
The official attendance of 4,317 for Thursday's Game 3 holds a dubious distinction when compared to recent Fort Wayne playoff history.
The crowd is the first sub-5,000 mark for a playoff game since the Komets drew 4,917 against Port Huron on April 2, 2003.
The last time Fort Wayne drew a crowd smaller than Thursday's for a postseason contest was April 16, 2001, when 4,222 turned out at Memorial Coliseum for a game against Quad City.