The Force was not with the Toledo Walleye on Star Wars night Saturday at the Huntington Center as they suffered their third consecutive defeat.
Wheeling scored two quick goals in the first period and went on to top the Walleye 4-2 before a capacity crowd of 7,500.
The Walleye wore Chewbacca-inspired jerseys during the special Star Wars-themed event. The brown sweaters were auctioned off after the game for charity. Hundreds of fans dressed in Star Wars costumes and characters from the popular movie series also roamed the concourses.
But Toledo (14-7-3), which was playing without five of its top 10 scorers because promotions and call-ups, looked to be cursed by the Dark Side. The Walleye, who are in a rare slump after two seasons of consistent success, once again generated plenty of chances and outshot the Nailers 34-26.
The Walleye have dropped three straight at home. The last time the team dropped that many in a row at the downtown arena came in early February of last season.
Forward Erik Bradford, who scored in the second to make it 2-1, said the team is not getting the bounces.
“Losses and adversity happen throughout the year,” Bradford said. “But it's amplified with the team we have. When most teams in this league lose three in a row, it's not as big of a deal as it is here because this team has championship aspirations. It's tough with different guys in and out of the lineup, but there is an opportunity for guys to step up. The guys that are in there really do what to win for the guys that are out. So it's frustrating right now.”
The Nailers (13-9-2) scored on back-to-back shots by Jarrett Burton and Troy Josephs just 12 seconds apart in the first to take a 2-0 lead.
Bradford then got rewarded for forcing a turnover deep in the Wheeling end. Kevin Gibson got the puck back to Bradford, and he scored to cut the gap to one.
However, Wheeling got the goal right back when Hunter Fejes stole the puck, then scored to re-establish the two-goal advantage.
“When you're snake-bitten, you have to be great defensively and we have to clean up the breakdowns,” Walleye coach Dan Watson said.
Toledo goalie Matej Machovsky then made the play of the game late in the second. The rookie flipped a pass from his goal crease to Wheeling's blue line. Machovsky hit a streaking Kyle Bonis in stride, and the Toledo forward finished the breakaway to make it 3-2 with 4:36 left in the second. It was Machovsky's first point in the ECHL and Bonis' eighth goal of the season.
“He can handle the puck, and that was a great heads-up play,” Machovsky said.
Toledo's leading scorer, Christian Hilbrich, then had a terrific chance from in close to tie it early in the third. But Wheeling goalie Adam Morrison made the save and the Nailers went down to the other end and made it 4-2 on Burton's second goal of the game.
Morrison finished with 24 saves.
Watson said his team had plenty of chances to score but also are forcing things.
“You can still see some hesitation out there,” Watson said. “We want them to go out there and just play — play like the Toledo Walleye typically play. We get up and down the ice quick and we're not doing that right now.”
The Walleye went 0 for 2 on the power play and are now 0 for 7 in the last two games. Toledo was outscored 14-6 in the three-game homestead, also losing 5-2 to Fort Wayne on Wednesday and 5-2 to Tulsa on Friday.
“We have tons of offensive capability and sometimes when that happens there is a tendency to try a little too hard,” said Bradford, who has 17 points in 19 games. “Sometimes less is more. I'm sure once we get back to the basics and get some of these guys back, we'll start going.”
Bonis also hit a post with a shot for the second consecutive night.
The roster in this game was depleted because of the promotions.
Forward Tyler Barnes was signed by the AHL's Cleveland Monsters. Barnes, 27, ranks third on the team in scoring with 17 points in 21 games.
The Walleye also were without leading scorer Mike Borkowski and forward Zach Nastasiuk, who were called up by Toledo’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids. Borkowski has 20 points with nine goals in 20 games, while Nastasiuk is sixth on the Walleye with 12 points. Key defenseman Vili Saarijarvi also was called up to the Griffins.
Assistant captains Shane Berschbach and A.J. Jenks, who rank seventh and 10th in scoring, respectively, are on the injured reserve list. Captain Alden Hirschfeld is out for the rest of the regular season with a knee injury.
The Walleye had just 16 skaters (eight forwards, eight defensemen). Gibson, a defenseman, was moved up to forward on a line with Bradford and Charlie O'Connor. Defenseman Parker Reno was a 10th forward.
Toledo will have the next five days off to regroup.
“I'm glad we have this week off to fine tune some things and get back to communicating,” Watson said. “It's unfamiliar territory. We have to work through it. You can't dwell on it. You have to learn from it. This group can turn it around.”
The Walleye play at Brampton on Friday, then host Atlanta on Saturday and Kalamazoo on Dec. 17.
“When things aren't going your way, it's good to take a step back and don't be so hard on yourself,” Bradford said. “We are taking this very hard. But we have more games to play and our focus needs to be getting better.”
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