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Published: Saturday, 4/9/2005

Ride on to Reading: Storm wins, faces North champ in playoffs

BY DAN SAEVIG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

It's Reading, set, go for the Toledo Storm.

Last night at the Sports Arena, the Storm earned a berth in the ECHL's Kelly Cup playoffs - and a first-round best-of-five matchup with the North Division champion Reading Royals - with a convincing 6-3 decision over the Peoria Rivermen.

The win sewed up fourth place in the North for Toledo and in the process eliminated fifth-place Peoria from postseason play for the first time in 18 seasons.

The Storm's series with Reading - which begins Thursday in Pennsylvania - was confirmed when second-place Trenton and third-place Atlantic City both recorded victories last night.

The Storm's Carl Mallette beats Peoria's Ed Hill, right, to the puck last night at the Sports Arena. The Storm's Carl Mallette beats Peoria's Ed Hill, right, to the puck last night at the Sports Arena.
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"Getting in the playoffs," Toledo coach Nick Vitucci said. "That was our goal from the get-go. We weren't worried about first place. As the season's gone on we've built this team into what I feel is a strong playoff-type hockey club. Our challenge was to get there. We're there."

The Storm landed its first postseason appearance in two years largely because of one sequence at the end of the opening period.

On the power play and staring at a wide-open net in front of Toledo goalie Scott Fankhouser - who kept the game scoreless with one acrobatic save after another - Peoria sniper Brian McCullough fanned on a shot. The puck slid to the wall near the Toledo bench, triggering a two-on-one break by Scooter Smith and Steve Slonina that Slonina finished off with a stick-side wrister that beat goalie Alfie Michaud.

The marker came with just 28 seconds remaining in the period. Boosted by that play, Toledo scored three more unanswered goals in the second.

"For [McCullough] to miss was pretty big," Fankhouser said. "He usually puts those in. I was pretty happy to see it happen. I was even happier to see the way it finished up."

Pierre-Luc Sleigher helped finish off the Rivermen with a pair of third-period goals after Peoria had cut the lead to 4-2.

"Playoff hockey, that's what it's all about," said Sleigher, who also had two assists. "We have gotten better all season and that's why we're there."

For veteran Rick Judson, it's been a year to remember.

A member of the Storm's first team in 1991-92, the now 35-year-old came out of retirement last season to appear for a club that missed the playoffs. He became the Storm's all-time leading goal scorer this season and has watched with interest the developments that have unfolded since last week when Toledo management announced it was seeking approval from the ECHL to suspend operations next season because of mounting financial losses, a request that will be considered on Tuesday unless a new operator can be found.

"Nobody expected us to be here," Judson said. "At the beginning of the year, almost everybody in the media, including The Hockey News, picked us to finish dead last or close to it. It's a great feeling."

NOTES: Toledo center Carl Mallette was named to the ECHL's first all-star team yesterday. Mallette, who has six goals and eight assists in eight games since being acquired from Greenville last month, has 30 goals and 49 assists overall. ... The Storm fan club will host a Save Our Storm rally today at 2 p.m. behind the Sports Arena.

Contact Dan Saevig at: dsaevig@theblade.com.

By virtue of its higher seed, Reading (43-21-7) will have home-ice advantage in the best-of-five playoff series against Toledo (41-25-5).

The series will begin with games Thursday and next Saturday in Reading. Game No. 3 will be played 6:05 p.m. April 17 at the Sports Arena. If necessary, Game No. 4 will be in Toledo at 7:05 p.m. April 19. Should a Game No. 5 be required, it will be held April 20 in Reading.

Toledo went 3-6-0 against the Royals this season, including a 2-1 loss on the road Thursday.

"What a great hockey game we had [against the Royals]," Vitucci said. "It was a playoff-style hockey game. They're a tight defensive team and when we play tight defensively, we can hold them back as well."



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