They were the two best teams in the East Coast Hockey League this season, separated by only one point in the standings.
Seemingly headed for a Northwest Division finals showdown in the second round of the Kelly Cup playoffs were Brabham Cup champion Toledo (104 points) and runner-up Peoria (103 points).
It's not going to happen.
The Storm did what it was expected to do, completing a three-game sweep of Lexington Saturday at the Sports Arena. Cincinnati, however, had other plans for Peoria.
Sunday night in the Queen City, the Cyclones - who, with 79 points, finished third in the division during the regular season - recorded a 4-3 double-overtime win over the Rivermen to win that series, 3 games to 1.
As a result, Toledo and Cincinnati will meet in the best-of-five divisional finals with Game No. 1 scheduled for the Sports Arena Friday at 7:30 p.m.
“You've got to feel for Peoria after having that type of season, but that is the playoffs,” Storm coach Claude Noel said. “Now, more than ever, we recognize anything can happen in the playoffs.”
The Cyclones' impressive performance, which included two OT victories, is even more notable in that the Rivermen became the first team in the 15-year history of the ECHL to record 100 points during the regular season, only to be knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.
“We did talk about [the upset, in Toledo's dressing room],” said Storm center Matt Ellis, who yesterday was named March's ECHL rookie of the month after scoring eight goals with eight assists in 13 games. “Going into the second round, we have to respect Cincinnati as a team, but we have to come out and set the tone early and play our style of hockey.”
During the regular season, Toledo was 7-2-1 against the Cyclones. But as Peoria found out, that doesn't matter. The Rivermen held a 6-2 edge over Cincinnati during the season.
“When you think about Peoria, you think about a hockey team that's big and strong and physical and plays with an edge,” Ellis said. “When you think about Cincinnati, you think about a more skilled club that's very patient, one that tries to bring you to their level. When you slow down, that's when they jump on you.”
Rod Taylor won't be around when the series starts. The Storm yesterday released the ECHL's all-time leading scorer, who had yet to play in the postseason. Signed by Toledo on March 22, he had no points in two regular-season games.
One of five veterans on the roster in a league which allows just four, Taylor has been on injured reserve since the Storm signed veteran netminder Jeff Salajko on March 30 due to the uncertain status of goalie Brian Finley and his injured groin.
Finley is on recall to Milwaukee of the American Hockey League.
“We got him in here for the year,” Noel said of Taylor. “But the landscape changed when we had to get Salajko, a goalie who was a veteran.
“That put Rod Taylor in a position, the only way he was going to go in was if another veteran went out.
“His chance of playing was not good.
“We didn't bring him in here for this to happen, but I get paid to make decisions and that's what I do.”
Toledo's four veterans are forwards Jim Brown, Jeff Mitchell and Andre Payette, and Salajko.
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