The Toledo Storm will know by later this evening whether or not it's realistically still alive in the chase for an East Coast Hockey League playoff position.
One thing the team knows now is that it won't have arguably its best offensive defenseman and a top forward in the lineup for its most important game of the season - a 7 p.m. faceoff at the Sports Arena against the Wheeling Nailers.
Yesterday, winger Jeff Mitchell, acquired from Dayton two weeks ago for Andrew Williamson, was loaned to Saint John of the American Hockey League. On Monday the parent Detroit Red Wings recalled Ryan Gaucher and reassigned him to Cincinnati of the AHL.
A loss to fourth-place Wheeling tonight at the Sports Arena won't mathematically eliminate the sixth-place Storm from the Kelly Cup playoffs, but it would make a qualifying comeback extremely difficult.
Toledo, with 57 points, trails the Nailers by eight points for the final playoff position in the Northwest Division. Both teams have 11 games remaining in the regular season, including three against each other.
The task at hand for the Storm is made more daunting with Gaucher's recall. In six games with Toledo after being sent down from Cincinnati on March 1, Gaucher had a goal and six assists.
“It's a huge blow to our hockey team,” said Dennis Holland, Toledo coach and director of hockey operations. “You take a guy out of your lineup that plays 30 minutes, you can't replace him. Look at what he did to our power play for two weeks.”
In those two weeks, with Gaucher playing the point on the man-advantage unit, the Storm's success rate jumped from 28th overall in the 29-team league to 23rd.
In six games with Toledo Mitchell had three goals and three assists.
With or without Gaucher and Mitchell, tonight is a must-have two points for Toledo.
“Either we win or we better hope a lot of teams start losing,” Storm center Richard Keyes said. “We need to take control of our own destiny. We don't want it to come down to other teams losing.”
Toledo is also chasing fifth-place Cincinnati, which has 61 points with 11 games remaining, seven of them at home. Of the Storm's 11 contests to be played, eight are at the Sports Arena including two with the Nailers. Wheeling has five home starts left.
Although home ice has not been overly kind to Toledo this season, Keyes said the Storm can improve on its Sports Arena record of 14-12-2 by keeping one thing in mind.
“We need to come out strong and intense for 60 minutes,” Keyes said. “We can't give up after a period and a half and let teams come from behind.”
NOTES: Holland has named Alexandre Jacques team captain. Jacques replaces Rob Thorpe, who was waived last week. ... Toledo has added defenseman Marc Higginbotham to its roster. A 6-3, 210-pounder, he was acquired on waivers from Jackson. Higginbotham was pointless in two games with the Bandits.
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