The Storm's first opportunity to avenge a dreadful 2003-04 season and to prove that coaches in the ECHL's North Division were wrong in picking Toledo to finish seventh out of eight teams in a preseason poll comes tonight.
Coach Nick Vitucci's club opens its 72-game regular-season schedule at the Sports Arena with a 7:30 faceoff against Wheeling.
"It's very important for us to get off to a good start," Vitucci said. "It's huge. It started in training camp. We started putting systems in place right away. It's night and day ahead of where we were last year."
Where Toledo was last season was out of the playoffs. One year after winning the Brabham Cup for the best regular-season record in the ECHL, the Storm recorded one of the largest dropoffs in league history, falling from 104 points to 57. Steve Harrison, hired during the summer of 2003 to replace Claude Noel who was elevated to Milwaukee in the Triple-A caliber American Hockey League, was fired in December with a record of 9-11-3.
When it became apparent that the team would not qualify for postseason play, Harrison's replacement - Vitucci - began dealing some of Toledo's better players. Essentially loans, the Storm regained the rights to those skaters and received extra compensation.
Included in those deferred deals were Sam Paolini, P.J. Martin and Pierre-Luc Sleigher, expected to help form the nucleus of the 2004-05 team.
Despite the changes, most coaches in the North don't think the Storm will make the playoffs again this year. Toledo was picked to finish seventh, behind Trenton, Peoria, Reading, Wheeling, Johnstown and Atlantic City. Dayton was slotted to finish eighth.
The top four clubs make the playoffs.
"That's fine, let them think what they want," said Storm veteran Nick Parillo. "Who knows? They could be right. Hopefully they're not. Just from experience, I'm going to take care of myself so we're not in that situation. If other players do that as well, concentrate on their jobs and do them well, we won't be in that position."
Vitucci disagrees with his peers. The poll was taken before the start of training camp, impacting, he said, the thought process.
"It comes at an unfair time because a lot of teams don't know what anyone else has signed and what they've got coming into training camp," Vitucci said. "You're kind of going on what has happened up until that point. You take it with a grain of salt and use it as motivation down the road."
The coach said that Toledo will surprise people this season. He agrees with the choice of Trenton to finish on top, but picked his club to finish third based on what he had seen at the time the poll was conducted.
"You want to get in that top four," Vitucci said. "Honestly, I think we're in the top-four category in our division right now."
Toledo's first three games are at home, including tomorrow evening against Dayton. The Storm then begins a stretch of seven straight, covering a two-week period, on the road.
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