The largest crowd of the season witnessed the Toledo Storm win its biggest game of the year and maintain control of its own destiny in its hunt for a division title last night.
The Storm scored two goals just 16 seconds apart at the end of the first period and added an empty-netter to drop Johnstown 3-1. A standing-room-only crowd of 5,361 at the Sports Arena cheered wildly throughout, especially when Scooter Smith, Chris Blight and Kevin Magowan scored goals.
Toledo maintained sole possession of first place in the ECHL North Division and can clinch the title with another win over Johnstown tonight. The teams play tonight at 7 in Pennsylvania.
"To hang another banner in this building would be nice," said Storm coach Nick Vitucci. "But, more importantly, we can secure home ice advantage through at least the first two rounds."
Wheeling remained one point behind Toledo with a win over Trenton last night. The Nailers play at Dayton tonight and could claim the title with a win combined with a Storm loss.
"Our destiny lies in our hands," said Smith, who tallied his 23rd goal to open the scoring. "We've been looking at nothing but winning out. We won't be satisfied with anything but a win [tonight]."
Smith said the huge benefit of Toledo securing home ice advantage was on full display last night with the first sellout of the season. Toledo has lost just six games at home this season and has not lost here since Feb. 22. The Storm improved to 27-6-3 and has won a league-best 12 straight at 1 Main Street.
"Our rink is the best place to play in the league," said Blight, who scored the game-winner. "We've gotten used to the smaller ice and it's a huge advantage to us. Our fans are the best fans in the league by far. They're vocal. They're in your face. I love playing here. I wouldn't want to play anywhere else."
Goalie Drew MacIntyre, who returned to the Storm last night after a 17-day call-up to Grand Rapids, was a wall in net. He was treated to the "Drew" chant from the raucous crowd all night and made 23 saves.
"We've got something special going here and I was anxious to get back to be a part of it," said MacIntyre, who upped his record to 23-7-2. "It's just so much fun."
MacIntyre did not see the one shot that beat him. He was screened on Dimitri Tarabrin's slapper and did not react when Tarabrin made it 2-1 late in the second period.
"I felt very confident tonight. I feel like I'm back into it," MacIntyre said.
Smith got the offense started for the Storm with a power play goal late in the first period. His slap shot from the point whizzed past Chiefs goalie Josh Disher's right shoulder to make it 1-0.
"[Matt] Zultek had a nice screen," Smith said. "I saw an opening and I don't think the goalie even saw it. I think it was the catalyst for the game there."
Just 16 seconds later, Mike James sent a perfect pass from behind the net out front to Blight, who quickly one-timed it home.
"They were feeding me all night. I probably should have had six," said Blight, who was named ECHL rookie of the month yesterday.
Magowan capped the celebration with an empty net goal with 10 seconds left.
The Storm still could play one of four opponents in the first round of the playoffs, including the Chiefs. But Smith said the team doesn't care who it plays in the first round, just where the first two games are played. Toledo has won the second most contests at home in the ECHL.
"It was just electric here," he said. "It gave everyone on our team that extra jump. It is a comfort level. You're in your own rink. You're in your own dressing room. You sleep in your own bed. All of that factors into a big home ice advantage."
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