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Published: Tuesday, 5/2/2006

Storm happy to have Game 5 at home

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
James James
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From the shorter glass to the smaller ice surface to the deafening atmosphere with intimidating fans right on top of the action, the Sports Arena has long been considered one of the toughest places to play in the ECHL.

The Storm won a North Division title to ensure that it would keep that extraordinary home-ice advantage and it will come into play in the game of the season when the Storm hosts Wheeling tonight at the venerable Sports Arena in the final game of a second-round Kelly Cup playoff series.

"This is why we worked so hard all year, to get home ice," said Storm left winger Mike James. "You knew it was going to come into effect sooner or later. We only lost once there in the last 20 games or so and we're confident in there, and hopefully we can win this series and go into the conference finals."

Of the 40 games the Storm has played at the Sports Arena this season, the team has come out on the winning end 30 times and lost only seven times. Toledo had won 15 straight at home before the Nailers defeated the Storm 5-3 last Wednesday to tie the series at one game apiece. The teams split the next two games in West Virginia and square off one last time in the best-of-five series.

"It will be nice to play in front of our fans again," said center Bracken Kearns, who leads the team with nine points (6 goals, 3 assists) in seven playoff games. "I'm sure they'll be pretty pumped."

But after experiencing less than impressive turnouts in the playoffs, the organization is hoping that a planned "white out" for the game will boost attendance. The organization is encouraging fans to wear white apparel and the first 500 fans will receive a free "blizzard towel."

Mayor Carty Finkbeiner and Storm coach Nick Vitucci were on hand for a press conference yesterday to announce the promotion and both encouraged fans to support the team.

"The No. 1 thing with home-ice advantage is our fans," Vitucci said. "If we have a loud vocal crowd in the Sports Arena like we had in the regular season, they're like an extra player out on the ice.

"We are a team that goes on momentum, and when the fans cheer and applaud, it allows us to pick up our momentum."

But Wheeling coach Glenn Patrick said he likes his team's chances at the Sports Arena, where the Nailers are 3-5-1 this season.

"We've won there before and we're not intimidated by that rink," Patrick said. "We just have to prepare to go out there and have great effort."

Before Wheeling took Game 2 here last week, the Storm had not lost at One Main Street since Feb. 22.

"It's home ice. But we still have to go out there and play and win the game," said Storm forward Scooter Smith, who has collected six points in the playoffs. "If we go out there and work hard, they can't beat us."

Vitucci said he expects another close game and pointed out that Wheeling finished just one point behind the Storm in the final regular-season standings.

"Wheeling has played very hard here," he said. "It is an advantage, but it is a small one at this point. It's one game and anything can happen."

The goaltending matchup may have the ultimate say in the final outcome.

Wheeling goalie Andy Franck is 5-3 with a 2.91 GAA in the playoffs, including a shutout of the Storm last Friday.

Toledo received an unexpected boost in the return of Drew MacIntyre before last Saturday's 3-1 win over the Nailers. Despite no previous postseason experience, MacIntyre is 6-0, including two wins for Grand Rapids in the AHL, and has a 1.75 goals against average in four wins for the Storm.

"Mac has been awesome for us," Vitucci said. "He gave the whole team a shot in the arm. He instills a lot of confidence in our team. He was dedicated to come back here and it shows how much he cares about organization. None of the players want to disappoint him."

Contact Mark Monroe at:

mmonroe@theblade.com

or 419-724-6110.



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