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Published: Monday, 4/24/2006

Storm sees series as tough as Nailers

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Just one point separated the Toledo Storm and the Wheeling Nailers in the final ECHL North Division standings.

An equally tight fight is expected as the rivals square off tonight in a second-round series of the Kelly Cup playoffs. Toledo hosts Wheeling in Game 1 of a best-of-five division final series at 7:05 p.m. at the Sports Arena.

Six of the 13 games between the foes in the regular season were decided by one goal and 10 were decided by two goals or fewer. A close, yet high-scoring and physical series is anticipated for the right to represent the division in the conference finals.

"I think it's going to be a good series," said Storm left winger Jeff Attard, who has scored four goals and had five assists against Wheeling. "Every game has been close this season. It will be a battle for sure. I think there will be a lot of goals and there will be a lot of garbage goals. We'll just keep working hard around the net and hope to get rebounds."

Toledo posted an 8-4-1 overall record against Wheeling, including a 5-1-1 mark at the Sports Arena.

"At times it will be mean and chippy," said Storm coach Nick Vitucci. "Both teams play hard and get under your skin. I see it being more aggressive and high scoring.

"You can't forget that they finished one point behind us in the standings. They're a dangerous team through and through."

Sean Collins, Kurtis McLean and Arpad Mihaly have formed one of the most potent lines in the playoffs for the Nailers. The trio have combined for 22 of the team's 34 points. Collins has five goals and four assists.

"The key for us is to shut down their top line," said Storm captain Jason Maleyko, who has tallied four points in three playoff games. "They scored all the goals in the first round."

"Keeping them at bay will be a very big key," Vitucci agreed. "They're very good.

"But [the Nailers are] not a one-man band. That line just happened to catch fire in the playoffs. That doesn't mean other players like [former Storm player Tim] Verbeek and a couple others can't get it going."

On the flip side, Toledo has relied on its "Kid Line" of Bracken Kearns, Chris Blight and Mike James late in the season. The line has combined for 13 of Toledo's 28 playoff points. Kearns has led the way with four goals and two assists. But Vitucci believes he can run out three lines that can consistently produce.

Scooter Smith, Todd Jackson, Ken Magowan and Attard all collected nine or more points against Wheeling this season. Smith scored five goals and registered 11 assists in 12 games.

"This team is very confident coming in," Attard said. "I feel like we're playing our best hockey."

The biggest factor in the series may be the matchup in goal. Logan Koopmans takes over in net for Drew MacIntyre, who was called up to the AHL last Thursday. Koopmans was 2-0-0 with a 1.50 goals-against average against Wheeling this season. MacIntyre led Toledo to a sweep over Johnstown in the first round.

"We're definitely disappointed for Drew because he played so well," Maleyko said. "But we know Koops worked so hard to get back from that injury. We're still very confident in him and right now we have so much confidence in the way we're playing, it doesn't matter what the circumstances are."

Nailer goalie Andy Franck was 3-1 with a 3.21 GAA against Reading in the opening round. He went 4-7-1 with a 2.79 GAA against the Storm.

Attard said the way the Storm's defense has been playing should help Koopmans' confidence. Toledo outshot its opponents in 36 straight games before it tied Johnstown with 33 shots apiece Wednesday.

It is pivotal for the team to benefit from its home-ice advantage, Attard added.

"No team wants to come into the Sports Arena," he said. "It's a tough place to play."

Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com or 419-724-6110.



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