CINCINNATI -- The Cyclones dominated the Fort Wayne Komets early and often Tuesday at US Bank Arena to earn a berth in the conference finals for a second straight year.
With the 4-1 win Cincinnati’s minor-league hockey team clinched the series four games to two.
It also means a return trip to the ECHL Eastern Conference final for the Cyclones, who’ve advanced to at least the third round of the playoffs six out of the last eight seasons. They won the Kelly Cup twice during that period (2008 and 2010).
“I think our guys really came to play today,” sad first-year coach Ben Simon after the game. “They wanted to end this series, we didn’t want to extend this series any further than they had to, and they really showed up and played.”
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Cincinnati lit the lamp for the first time just more than four minutes into the game when Josh Shalla scored by sliding a rebounded puck under the pad of goaltender Ben Meisner.
Shalla's third goal in as many games, fifth of the postseason, helped the 'Clones improve to 7-3 in the playoffs when they score first.
The Cyclones notched their second goal with just a minute to play in the opening period on a slick set of moves from forward Wade Megan. Megan beat two defenders and bested Meisner on his blocker side to tally his team-leading seventh goal of the postseason.
Dan Eves gave Cincinnati a 3-0 lead midway through the second period thanks to a pair of beautiful setup passes from Jonathan Hazen and Chris Reed, who had two helpers on the night.
After being out-shot in the opening period 16-5, the Komets picked up their pace of play on offense over the next two periods, firing off 24 shots compared to the Cyclones' 17.
Center Dean Ouelett scored with more than six minutes remaining to give the Fort Wayne faithful something to cheer about. But Cincinnati goaltender Rob Madore continued his strong play and didn't allow another shot to get past him.
Brian Nugent secured the win for the Cyclones by deflecting the puck into Fort Wayne's empty net to push the lead to 4-1 win 1:15 left on the clock.
Tuesday's series-deciding win came on the heels of back-to-back overtime wins at Fort Wayne by the 'Clones who've been one of the best teams on the road all season, particularly in the playoffs.
Simon believes his squad is finally starting to hit its stride after enduring a sometimes rocky regular season.
The Cyclones struggled in January and February, dropping six in a row from Feb. 1 to Feb. 12. The losing streak included five straight at home.
Simon, a former NHL draft pick and longtime minor leaguer, said many of his team's struggles were a byproduct of midseason personnel challenges that stemmed from a mixture of injuries and prospects getting called up by affiliate clubs at higher levels.
“From the guys who are sent up, to the guys who are sent down, you never really have a stable team,” he said. “But in the playoffs your rosters are a little more set and we have more definitive answers about who we’re going to have.”
The San Antonio Rampage gave the Cyclones a gift April 14 by reassigning Madore, Megan, and forwards Trevor Lewis and Logan Shaw to Cincinnati after a stint in the AHL. That was three days before the start of the playoffs.
With Tuesday’s win the Cyclones advance to take on the South Carolina-based Greenville Road Warriors.
The teams split the two-game regular-season series, with the Road Warriors winning the most recent matchup on Feb. 24, 5-3.
Despite having a rough scouting report and game tape, Simon said there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to Greenville.
"We don't know too much about (Greenville), we haven't seen that much this year," he said. "Obviously, they're playing very well right now, they just had a great series against Wheeling. Their defensemen are very good and they have great depth up front."
Of course, the lack of familiarity works both ways.
The fifth-seeded Cyclones have home ice advantage and will host the first two games of the series Monday and Tuesday because they're a lower seed than the No. 7 Road Warriors.
They'll also play games 6 and 7 in Cincinnati, if necessary.
But Simon is trying not to look that far ahead.
“We'll enjoy this (win) for tonight and then (we’ll) give guys a day off tomorrow to relax and recuperate. Starting (Thursday) we start in on our homework for Greenville.”
The 2014 Eastern Conference Finals schedule is as follows:
Game 1 at Cincinnati - Monday, May 19, 7:35 p.m. (Playoff Package Game G)
Game 2 at Cincinnati - Tuesday, May 20, 7:35 p.m. (Playoff Package Game H)
Game 3 at Greenville - Thursday, May 22, 7 p.m,
Game 4 at Greenville - Saturday, May 24, 7 p.m.
Game 5 at Greenville - Sunday, May 25, 3 p.m.*
Game 6 at Cincinnati - Tuesday, May 27, 7:35 p.m.* (Playoff Package Game J)
Game 7 at Cincinnati - Wednesday, May 28, 7:35 p.m.* (Playoff Package Game K)
* if necessary
Single game playoff tickets for the Eastern Conference Finals will go on sale Wednesday) at 10 a.m and can be purchased by calling 513.421.PUCK.