With seven games left in the regular season and locked in a six-team battle for four playoff spots, it still was not truly a must-win situation for the Toledo Storm last night at the Sports Arena.
It was more like a must-not-lose situation against last-place Dayton, but the Storm did just that, squandering a presumably golden opportunity with a 5-3 East Coast Hockey League loss against the nothing-to-lose Bombers.
"I'm not going to sugar-coat it," Storm coach Nick Vitucci said.
"This one really hurts. This was two points that we desperately needed just to keep pace in our division."
With or without a spot in the upcoming Kelly Cup playoffs, Storm fans will likely have much more to lose come next fall if Toledo does not have a team competing in the ECHL.
The club announced yesterday that it has applied to the league to voluntarily suspend operations for the 2005-06 season because of a dwindling season-ticket base which has resulted in a loss of adequate revenue.
Toledo, which averaged around 4,800 in per-game attendance for most of its first 10 seasons in the league, has seen a steady decline since then. With an average crowd of 3,553 at the Sports Arena this season, the club ranks 17th in the 28-team ECHL.
On the ice before a crowd of 4,018 last night, the Storm generated plenty of offense, outshooting the Bombers 56-34.
But Dayton goalie Mike Ayers was up to the task, stopping 53 of the 56 Toledo shots, and the Storm (37-24-5) was a dismal 1-for-8 on the power play in falling to the 23-37-6 Bombers.
"You look at the shots on goal, and that's the highest total we've had all season," Vitucci said. "We played desperate hockey for 30 minutes of the game but, unfortunately, we didn't do that for the first 30 minutes.
"That's disappointing that we didn't take this game a little more seriously and come out with a little more hunger."
Toledo did make things interesting on its final power play in the closing minutes, pulling goaltender Scott Fankhouser to gain a 6-on-4 edge in skaters and getting within 4-3 on Todd Jackson's second goal of the game with 1:33 left in the third period.
But the Bombers sealed things when Aaron Foster fired home an empty-net goal from 160 feet with 43 seconds remaining.
The loss dropped Toledo into fifth place in the ECHL's North Division, a point behind Peoria and four behind both Reading and Trenton.
Dayton took the lead 6:47 into the game when Todd Alexander broke away and beat Fankhouser on a low wrister. Toledo evened things nine seconds later on Steve Slonina's shot from the right circle. The Bombers took advantage of a Storm miscue at 12:10 of the first period when Janne Jokila notched a shorthanded goal.
Jokila's second goal of the period came on a power-play rebound from left of the crease for a 3-1 lead with 1:09 left in the first.
Dayton gained a 5-on-3 edge in skaters after Storm enforcer Robert Snowball drew an instigation call for his fight with Foster. That penalty that coincided with a hooking call on Slonina, setting up the Dayton score.
Toledo got closer 1:29 into the second period when Jackson scored his 11th of the season on an assist from Scooter Smith, then failed to cash in on back-to-back power plays.
Four seconds after the second of these Bomber penalties expired, Tyler Scott scored for a 4-2 Bomber edge.
"These are must-win games," Storm winger Nick Parillo said. "Now we have to focus on the next one.
"There's still a lot of opportunity out there."
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