Christian Hilbrich of the Toledo Walleye blocks Fort Wayne's Bobby Shea from getting to the puck during the School Day Celebration at The Huntington Center. The Walleye won the game, 6-3.
Toledo Walleye forward Christian Hilbrich notched a hat trick to the delight of more than 7,000 school kids in attendance at a special morning game Thursday at the Huntington Center, as the Walleye doubled up rival Fort Wayne 6-3 for the team’s third consecutive victory.
Toledo scored the game's first three goals in front of the energetic children for the School Celebration Day game. Fort Wayne rallied to tie it with three unanswered goals in the second period. However, Hilbrich tallied the game-winning goal 4:04 into the third. Toledo veteran forward A.J. Jenks then added two more goals as the crowd of 7,509 went wild. Toledo scored on three consecutive shots in the third to put it away.
Hilbrich had a hat trick last year while playing for Wheeling against Kalamazoo.
“It's always special. It feels great to get my first one as a fish,” Hilbrich said.
Walleye coach Dan Watson said his team was on its game in the first, but then took 17 minutes off in the second.
“Once we got up 3-0, we kind of sat back. We thought it'd be an easy night. But Fort Wayne wasn't going to let that happen. We had too many careless plays in the second. In between the second and third it wasn't a fun talk,” he said. “I told them to get going and that we don't get outworked at home. It was more about the tone. You can't scream too much. But we turned the page and won the [third] period and the hockey game.”
Watson said the early start takes a different mentality.
“But there was instant intensity for us. I'm happy with the two points today,” he said.
Hilbrich and Jenks scored on back-to-back shots just 35 seconds apart in the third to help the Walleye regain control.
Hilbrich, Toledo's leading scorer, tallied two goals in the first 5:29 of the game to stake the Walleye to a quick 2-0 lead.
“Fort Wayne is our biggest rival, so even though the [10:35 a.m.] start time was a little different, it was the same preparation,” Hilbrich said. “It was great to get a goal early, and that put them back on their heels, especially in our fun barn.”
Kevin Tansey then scored on the first shot of the second as Toledo seemed to be in control with a 3-0 lead. However, Fort Wayne stormed back with two goals from Dennis Kravchenko and a power-play goal from Shawn Szydlowski to tie it.
“With the ebbs and flows in the game, they were going to have their push,” Hilbrich said. “But we talked about it in the locker room before the third period. Watty fired the boys up. There's a lot of leaders on this team. And then we put the foot back on the gas pedal. We knew we had the momentum.”
Former Fort Wayne goalie Pat Nagle, who was acquired by Toledo in the offseason, finished with 33 saves against his former teammates.
The Walleye struck quickly when Hilbrich gathered his own rebound and scored just 1:55 into the game, then scored a couple minutes later. He leads the team in goals scored (eight) and points (13). It was the third multi-point game for Hilbrich this season.
Tansey's shot from the point as Jenks screened Fort Wayne goalie Garrett Bartus, who gave up three goals on 12 shots and was replaced by Michael Houser in net, gave Toledo a three-goal advantage.
But two things then changed the complexion of the game: A fight instigated by Fort Wayne's Curtis Leonard with Walleye defenseman Kevin Gibson, then a two-minute 5-on-3 power play awarded to the Komets after the Walleye were called for two penalties — including a faceoff violation — at the same time.
Fort Wayne got on the board as Kravchenko poked the puck by Nagle to make it 3-1 near the midpoint of the second. Szydlowski scored on the man-advantage, then Kravchenko tallied his second to tie it at 3 with 51 seconds left in the second.
The Walleye were outshot 14-3 in the second.
But Hilbrich scored early in the third, and Jenks followed 35 seconds later as Toledo grabbed the lead back. Jenks then scored again with 8:40 left to cement Toledo’s win.
Jenks had been out of the lineup the previous two games because of an illness.
“The big start was huge with the morning game. That gave us the boost,” Jenks said. “We know Fort Wayne is always going to bring their best. We didn't have the second period we wanted. Fort Wayne really brought it in the second. Watty has a good grip on the room, and he came in and said the right things. We carried his message out for the third.”
And the message Watson wanted to send to the kids who attended the game?
“They go home and tell mom and dad that they had an unbelievable experience and want to come back,” he said. “That's how you build a fan base.”
The Walleye (9-2-2), who remained undefeated at home (4-0-0), now have a home-and-home series against Cincinnati. Toledo plays at Cincinnati on Friday before hosting the Cyclones on Saturday.
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