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Published: Thursday, 3/10/2005

Playoffs iffy despite improved record

BY DAN SAEVIG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Third-quarter grades for the Storm, finding it ironic that only four of six deserving teams from the North Division will make the Kelly Cup playoffs next month while less-worthy clubs will qualify in other divisions.

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After winning seven of eight to start the term, Toledo has gone 4-7-0 and if the playoffs were to begin today the Storm would be on the outside for the second consecutive season despite a record this year of 31-22-4.

With 15 games remaining, Toledo already has eight more victories than all of 2003-04 but in a division that includes Reading, Wheeling, Peoria, Atlantic City and Trenton, being nine games over .500 isn't enough.

That's one factor that came in to play on Tuesday, when the franchise shipped captain and winger Sam Paolini, forwards Maris Ziedins and Tyler Knight, and defenseman Jason Jozsa to Greenville for center Carl Mallette - the ECHL's second-leading scorer - winger Kevin Bergin and defenseman Joey Martin.

Here's how Toledo coach Nick Vitucci and beat writer Dan Saevig assess the quarter heading into the final stretch:

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BIGGEST SURPRISE

Vitucci: "How tight the division is. We're nine games over .500. In another division, we'd probably be in a comfortable playoff spot. The daily grind continues and it emphasizes the importance of every game."

Saevig:Vitucci and assistant Tony MacAulay have done a nice job of atoning for the 2003-04 disaster that saw Toledo finish with 57 points and a record of 23-38-11.

Although they're not surprises, goalie Scott Fankhouser and defenseman P.J. Martin have been outstanding. Fankhouser - who has to fight to see the puck because the defense often allows the front of the net to look like New York City at rush hour - has been consistent as has Martin, who has played like an American Hockey Leaguer.

Although his production has tailed off as of late (no points in his last six games), forward Scooter Smith has contributed at both ends of the ice.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Vitucci: "Our last two weeks and at times, not battling as hard as we should at important times. Having to make a big trade is somewhat disappointing. I know it's going to help us but if we had maintained over the past two weeks what we had over the first five months, maybe these changes didn't have to be made."

Saevig: The lack of consistency. After an almost perfect beginning to the grading period, Toledo has struggled. Most alarming is the fact that of the last seven losses, none have been by one goal, this from a club that is 16-5-4 in such games so far this season.

Intensity is also an issue. When everyone shows up, Toledo can compete. When some don't ...

Individually, all-star defenseman Danny Eberly's play has tailed off. He was -6 during the quarter, making bad decisions in his own end while missing the jump that was a part of his game early.

Another who can be better is defenseman Paul Ballantyne. After a start that saw him record three goals and four assists in his first eight games after joining the club from Grand Rapids (AHL), Ballantyne had but one goal in his next eight appearances.

RECRUITING/TEAM MAKEUP

Vitucci: "I really like it right now. After this trade, on top of the speed and skill we have, we've added toughness and a pure goal scorer."

Saevig: There's a lack of aura surrounding this team, something Tuesday's trade may help change. Until the blockbuster, there were too many forwards cut from the same cloth; small and scared.

As it has all season, Toledo still needs a tough, veteran defenseman who can clear the crease and make the other defensemen bigger.

OVERALL GRADE

Quarter/Year

Vitucci: B/B+. "At times, it's been an emotional roller-coaster."

Saevig: C+/B. A team that's an experienced, hard-nosed defenseman away from having a really special season is challenged by the division in which it plays.

Contact Dan Saevig at:

dsaevig@theblade.com.



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