The Toledo Storm has withstood a bevy of roster moves, including a goaltending merry-go-round, to remain in the thick of the chase for a division title near the midpoint of the 2005-06 season.
Toledo is one of the hottest teams in the ECHL, having won four in a row as the league resumes its regular season tonight after a brief hiatus for its all-star break. The Storm returns to the ice tomorrow, traveling to Charlotte for two games this weekend.
The Storm (18-11-4) is in fourth place in the American Conference North Division and is 7-2-1 in its last 10 games. The team has 40 points in 33 games, but all three teams above the Storm in the standings have played at least four more games. First-place Wheeling has 53 points but has played 39 games.
Storm coach Nick Vitucci has started 31 different players this season, including seven goaltenders. Nine players have been called up, released or are injured.
"I'm very pleased with where we're at," he said. "I think when we've had our full team here together, we've had a very good record. When we're not a full team due to call-ups and injuries, we've been very average."
The key to the recent run has been the addition of goalies Drew MacIntyre and Bernd Bruckler, who both joined the team after the first of the year.
"Part of that stretch where we were a mediocre hockey team was because we were getting mediocre goaltending," said Vitucci, whose team lost six of eight games in mid-December. "They weren't getting the big saves when we needed them. Sometimes you need those heroic saves to steal a game. Bernd and Drew are now giving us that consistently."
Vitucci, who has started 10 rookies at some point in the season, said he is particularly pleased with the development of his young players.
Gerry Burke, Jeff Lang, Josh Zavitz, Bracken Kearns, Ryan Reid and Chris Blight have all shown improvement, he said.
"They're all now important factors on this team," Vitucci said.
Veteran forwards Jeff Attard and Todd Jackson, along with defensemen B.J. Adams and Jason Maleyko, have been the solid "elder statesmen."
"We've got a good mix of young and old," Vitucci said. "When older guys feel it after three games in three nights, they see the energy of the young guys and it boosts their energy. It works the other way, too. The older guys help the young guys work through things."
Forwards Ken Magowan and Scooter Smith have been the Storm's top two scorers all season. Both got off to hot starts and have slowed a bit as of late.
"I'd like to see a little more consistency out of Scooter and Kenny," Vitucci said. "If they play like they did earlier in the year, they can take us a long way."
After playing 19 of its first 33 games at the Sports Arena, Toledo goes on the road for 21 of its final 38. The team is 12-4-3 at home and 6-7-1 away from 1 Main St.
Although five of the six teams in the North Division will qualify for the playoffs, Vitucci said securing a higher seed is pivotal for his team to regain that home-ice advantage.
"Teams don't want to come in here because of the smaller ice surface," he said. "We have a very supportive fan base. They provide us with a lot of adrenaline."
Toledo has played 26 games against division foes and is 16-7-3 in those games. Only three of the Storms' final games are versus nondivision opponents.
Vitucci said the team's road record and goals-against average should continue to improve.
"Any coach would say team defense needs to improve," he said. "It has improved lately. Not giving up many opportunities is a team skill. Players have to take pride in that. It's never as glamorous as scoring a goal."
Toledo has scored an average of 3.73 goals a game, which is sixth-best in the league. The Storm gives up 3.27 per contest, which ranks 12th.
Toledo has put 35.30 shots on net per game, which is the second-highest average in the league. It yields 30.73 per game, which is ninth-best.
Vitucci said he still would like to add an offensive-minded defenseman and another goal-scoring forward.
"We need to get a few more pieces in place to make a deep playoff run. But I like where we are at now," he said.
After the weekend road trip, Toledo is back home Wednesday for a game versus Reading. The Storm then plays seven straight on the road in a span of 12 days.
"Hopefully the break will help us," Vitucci said. "Everyone gets to rest. We have a lot of games in a short amount of time. It's a bit of a nightmare how many we have in a row.
"But we have great chemistry on this hockey club. They love working together and helping each other improve. That is such a key to success. I like the shape we're in."
Contact Mark Monroe at: