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Published: Friday, 5/12/2006

Storm-Gwinnett series likely to get physical

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The ECHL American Conference final series between the high-powered offenses of Toledo and Gwinnett figures to turn more physical and grinding in the cozy confines of the Sports Arena tonight.

Gwinnett, the league's top scoring team, will play on the smaller ice surface for the first time. Toledo has played 41 games on the ice, which measures a tight 180 x 80 feet, and has won 31 times. The series is tied 1-1 and face-off is slated for 7:35 p.m. at One Main Street, where a vocal crowd is expected.

"The biggest thing is the confidence we've gained here," said Storm coach Nick Vitucci. "It will be more physical because you're right on top of each other. It will be a huge advantage if the crowd is loud and rowdy."

The Storm has won 16 of its last 17 at the Sports Arena and is 4-1 at home in the playoffs.

"The guys from Gwinnett came in [yesterday], and they just sat there and starred at the rink for 10 or 15 minutes," said Storm forward Chris Blight. "I think they were in shock and awe. The first time I skated on it I was running into the boards. It takes some time getting used to."

Gwinnett coach Jeff Pyle said he believes there will be much more hitting and close checking. The Gladiators play on a regulation-sized surface that is 200 x 85 feet.

"It's their barn, they're going to be more physical," Pyle said. "We've just got to get our feet moving. You're going to make sure you deflect pucks in deep and then you just go."

Blight said Gwinnett's style is forcing turnovers and flying through the neutral zone.

"So we need to keep it in their end," he said.

The Gladiators have led the league in scoring in the regular season (4.22 goals per game) and in the playoffs (4.67). The Storm was ranked ninth in the regular season with 3.39 goals per contest and eighth in the postseason (3.30).

"Our offense speaks for itself," Pyle said. "When we're going, we'll always get shots. But our question mark is team defense."

Gwinnett has yielded an average of 3.67 goals per game, and Toledo has surrendered 3.20.

Gwinnett goalie Adam Berkhoel is 5-1 in the playoffs, but he has a 3.54 goals against average. Toledo netminder Logan Koopmans (2-3, 4.03 GAA) is coming off one of his best performances. Koopmans made 54 stops in Toledo's 4-3 overtime win on Monday.

Rookie center Bracken Kearns continues to pace the Storm attack with seven goals, including three game-winners, and five assists. Veteran Matt Zultek has collected 11 points (5 goals, 6 assists) in the postseason. Blight has tallied 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists).

Gwinnett rookie Guillaume Desbiens has scored six goals and handed out five assists. Fellow rookie Milan Gajic has scored seven goals in nine games. The Gladiators' third-leading scorer, center Joel Stepp, ruptured his spleen when he was hit by Storm defenseman Gerry Burke in Game 2. Stepp had surgery on Monday night.

Toledo also will be without the services of one of its top forwards, Mike James. James suffered a concussion in Game 1 and will also miss Sunday's game. Rob Snowball, who scored in Monday's game, will fill in for James.

Although Toledo has failed to hold two-goal leads about a third of the way into both Games 1 and 2, Vitucci said it had more to do with Gwinnett's offensive abilities than a lack of effort on his team's part.

Pyle said his team can overcome the lack of familiarity with the Sports Arena and back-to-back slow starts by playing smart and simple hockey.

"We've got to be better defensively, it doesn't matter what barn we're in," Pyle said.

TICKET DRIVE: The Storm front office hopes that a bevy of special promotions this week will lead to a sellout tonight. In five playoffs games this season, Toledo has drawn an average crowd of 2,051. Gwinnett has averaged 3,527 in six games. Toledo has played before a sellout crowd (5,361) just twice this season.

Tickets are still available. For more information call 419-691-0200.

PLAYOFF POUNDERINGS: The Gladiators have lost back-to-back games only twice this season. Gwinnett has scored eight goals in the series with half coming on the power play. The Storm has countered with seven, including three with the man advantage. Gwinnett is 3-0 on the road in the playoffs, and Toledo is 4-1 at the Sports Arena. Gwinnett arrived in town yesterday and practiced at Tam O'Shanter. The Gladiators and the Storm could not skate at the Sports Arena due to a concert that was held Wednesday night. The first time Gwinnett will actually be on the ice will be during this morning's pregame skate.

Contact Mark Monroe at:

mmonroe@theblade.com

or 419-724-6110.



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