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Published: Tuesday, 5/16/2006

Inconsistent Storm facing uphill climb

The Storm has struggled mightily to close the deal against Gwinnett in the ECHL American Conference finals.

It has been one gargantuan meltdown after another.

Toledo has led in all four games, yet has won just once.

The Storm is staring elimination - and tee times at

Detwiler Golf Course - square in the face. Toledo needs to win tonight at home just to stay alive in the best-of-seven series.

Not even that's a guarantee.

The Storm was 27-6-3 at the Sports Arena in the regular season and dropped two in a row just once all year.

But Toledo has been shoddy in its old barn in the playoffs, where it is a very mediocre 4-3 and has suffered back-to-back losses to Gwinnett, amid a sea of red and white jerseys.

The Gladiators are on the verge of landing a knockout punch. They are 5-0 on the road in the playoffs and have outscored their opponents 24-13.

They finished off South Carolina and Florida in their buildings in the first two rounds and will be looking to duplicate the feat against Toledo in Game 5.

"We might be up 3-1, but this series is not over yet," Gwinnett defenseman Lane Manson said. "If it were, we'd be on the bus right now going home."

Gwinnett has simply been stronger and faster throughout the series, outscoring Toledo 9-0 in the decisive third periods.

The only thing the Storm has done consistently is fritter away big leads. Toledo led 3-1 in Game 1 at Gwinnett, but the Gladiators scored four unanswered goals to win 5-3. The Storm blew another two-goal lead on the road in Game 2, but recovered to win 4-3 in overtime.

In Game 3, Toledo led 1-0, but Gwinnett scored four of the final five goals for a 4-2 win.

The Storm was up 2-0 after two periods in Game 4 Sunday, but the Gladiators erupted with a four-goal third period to win 4-2.

"I don't think we're playing our best hockey right now," Toledo right wing Todd Jackson said in a major understatement. "We're not giving ourselves many chances to win."

Gwinnett was the top-scoring team in the league in the regular season and has held onto that honor in the postseason.

Only one player on Toledo's roster - left wing Matt Zultek - has scored more than one goal in the series. He's netted three.

Center Bracken Kearns, the team's leading scorer, is goal-less against Gwinnett, and center Scooter Smith and Jackson have scored just once each.

That's why coach Nick Vitucci's team is on life support. Not even the heroic playoff effort of Drew [MacIntyre], who had won 13 consecutive games for Toledo until dropping Game 4, likely can save this crew.

With or without MacIntyre, the Storm faces a mammoth task.

Toledo must win three in a row, including Games 6 and 7 at Gwinnett, to advance to the Kelly Cup finals.

According to Jack Carenfix, the ECHL's vice president of communications, only two teams in the league's 18-year history have rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to win a series - Las Vegas in the first round this year and Mississippi in the Kelly Cup finals in 1999.

On top of that, Gwinnett is 5-1 in deciding games of a series, while the Storm is only 5-9 when facing elimination.

Not impossible, just improbable.



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