This one was a punch to the gut.
In the tightest game of the series, it took 22 extra seconds for the Fort Wayne Komets to beat the Quad-City Mallards 4-3 Wednesday night and take a 3-0 series lead in the first round of the ECHL Kelly Cup Playoffs.
Game 4 is at the iWireless Center on Friday at 7:05 p.m.
"It's definitely frustrating because it's one bounce, here or there for us," captain Chris Francis said. "Right now, it seems like they're getting the bounces and we're not. We've just got to stick with it, stick to the game plan."
Kyle Thomas scored the game-winner, burying a one-timer from Mike Cazzola from the slot past C.J. Motte 22 seconds into overtime. The puck deflected down into the corner to Cazzola, who had a quick one-touch pass to Thomas for the goal.
"All three of these games have been battles," Thomas said. "We're fortunate enough to be up 3-0 now, but we still have a long way to go. It's not over."
The Komet power play was a carry-over from the closing seconds of the third period. Grant Arnold lost his helmet, and as he was skating off to make a change, blocked a Komet shot. He was called for a penalty for playing without his helmet.
"I'm looking forward to watching the replay, I don't really know how my helmet came off but regardless, I was going for a change and then I saw the guy in the slot had the puck and I didn't want him to get the open look," Arnold said. "I went down to block it and obviously that's a penalty in this league."
This loss is perhaps the most frustrating because of how close it was to going the other way.
The Mallards came into the series being outshot a combined 74-31 but outplayed the Komets for long stretches, winning the shot battle 36-35. But they haven't been able to win the bounces, which have almost all gone Fort Wayne's way, including one big one in the second period.
Thomas was credited with just one goal, but may have scored two on a play where nobody seemed to know what happened. A shot from Shawn Szydlowski went up off Motte into the air, and bounced off something into the net to give the Komets a 3-2 lead at 17:16 of the period.
Thomas claimed it hit off his chest, the refs said the puck went off Mallards defenseman Guillaume Gelinas, and the fans at the iWireless Center felt it was a high-stick.
The goal stood, but the questions surrounding it lingered.
"It's unfortunate," head coach Phil Axtell said. "There's four refs on the ice and if it was clear cut and no questions, there shouldn't have been a discussion. But there was, and that makes me think it wasn't clear cut, no questions asked goal off of our guy."
It's a bounce that Fort Wayne has received all series, and one the Mallards are desperately searching for.
Michael Parks got the Mallards started off quickly, burying a puck from the slot just 1:27 into the game. Parks was perfectly positioned to capitalize on a puck that had been chipped off Brady Brassart’s stick to grab his first goal of the playoffs.
But Fort Wayne answered, and Mike Cazzola continued to torment the Mallards, redirecting a feed from Mason Baptista past Motte at 9:56. It’s Cazzola’s third goal of the series and ninth in his last 10 games.
The Mallards had plenty of looks as the period wore on, but the puck was either just out of reach, just missed the net, or just was turned aside by Komets goalie Pat Nagle.
Again, in a game of bounces, the Mallards came up just short.
"Quad-City played a great game tonight. Let's tip our hat to them," Fort Wayne coach Gary Graham said. "The first period, really our goaltender probably stole us a game tonight. The scoring chances definitely benefited them, they came out really hard and had a lot of chances in around the net they just missed or we had some good saves by Nags to keep us in it."
Gabriel Desjardins gave the Komets a 2-1 lead with another deflection goal, getting to the front of the net and tipping a shot from Garrett Thompson in at 3:14 in the second period.
The Mallards answered again, as Sam Warning jumped on a loose puck for his first goal of the playoffs.
After the go-ahead Komet goal in the second period, Alex Petan got the game to overtime, burying a one-timer after a shot from Josh MacDonald hit off the post, tying the game at 12:44 in the third period.
"I thought the boys played really well," Francis said. "They got some generous bounces on some of their goals that we can't control but the way we responded and fought the whole game, I love it. We would like the outcome to be different but there's still games left to be played. There's still another day."
Motte was once again stellar in net for the Mallards. He made 32 saves in the game, perhaps none bigger than a glove stop he made on Komets defenseman Jason Binkley, denying the Komets on a 2-on-1 rush with 12 minutes left in the third period.
"He's a game-changer," Axtell said. "If it wasn't for him these last three games it wouldn't be as close at it was. The save he had in the third was remarkable."
But once again, it was all for naught, and now the Mallards are faced with climbing out of an 0-3 series hole.
"We attack it the same way," Axtell said. "Lots of opportunities we didn't capitalize on. Hopefully next game we will."