Logan Koopmans makes a stop for the Storm against Johns- town. The goaltender earned a career-high 17 wins.
Although it's only the first two games of the opening round of the ECHL playoffs, Toledo Storm players believe they are already facing "a must win situation."
The Storm opens a North Division semifinal series tomorrow night against Cincinnati at the Sports Arena with Game 2 set for Saturday night at One Main Street.
Snatching a two-game lead in the best-of-five series is paramount, according to three Storm veterans. Toledo (39-30-3) earned the second seed and home-ice advantage by winning its last four games. The Cyclones (37-29-6) fell to third after losing six of their last eight games.
Defenseman Gerry Burke, who played in all 72 games, was the last player off the ice at practice yesterday at Tam O'Shanter. Burke, who led the team with a plus-10 rating, said the team's recent winning streak should give it a boost.
"These first two games are even more important because it's a five-game series," Burke said. "You definitely want to be up 2-0."
Forward Nick Parillo, who scored 15 goals and had 25 assists in the regular season, said the players must compete like their backs are already against the wall.
"From my experience of playing pro hockey for five years, the first two games are absolutely critical," Parillo said. "That's why the home-ice advantage is so huge.
"I love playing at this time of year. Everyone brings their 'A' game. This is what it's all about."
Goalie Logan Koopmans, who set a career-high with 17 wins this season, said the team just needs to play like it has over the last four games.
"It took all year for us to click, but we're finally clicking here at the end," Koopmans said. "We just need to keep that confidence."
Solid special teams play and seizing early leads will be key factors.
Both teams have solid penalty-kill units, but both have struggled on the power play.
"I think it will come down to special teams and who is playing good playoff hockey," Burke said. "If we have the opportunities, we have to convert. It's crucial."
Cincinnati is ranked third in the league in penalty kill (85.8 percent). Toledo has the eighth best PK rating (84.4).
"The key is being consistent on the penalty kill," Koopmans said. "Cincy also is good in the back and they play great defense."
The Storm scored only 15 percent of the time when it was on the power play during the regular season. The Cyclones converted on 15.1 percent of their chances. The teams were ranked 22nd and 23rd in power play conversion percentage.
"I've always thought that power play goals come in bunches," Parillo said. "The penalty kill will be huge because of their offensive ability."
Toledo has been nearly perfect when grabbing a lead after two periods. The Storm is 25-1-0 when heading into the third period with a lead.
"That's an amazing stat," Burke said. "I think other teams get deflated when they get down here at the Sports Arena. It's so tough to play here."
Toledo is 23-4-0 when it takes a lead after one period.
"We're an emotional team," Koopmans said. "If we get the lead it gets everyone going. If we are ahead we work that much harder. I think it shows a lot about our character."
Parillo said those records reflect the team's ability to clamp down defensively.
"If we're up in the third period, we close the door," Parillo said. "The coaches tell us to not lose focus and concentrate on playing good defense."
As added incentive, Koopmans and Parillo may be playing pro hockey for the last time. Both are contemplating retirement.
It also is not lost on the players that this likely is the last hockey that will ever be played at the 60-year-old Sports Arena. A request by the organization to suspend operations remains under consideration by ECHL officials and the facility's future is in doubt.
"I hope people come out because this could be the last playoff series here at the Sports Arena," said Parillo, who is in his fourth season with the Storm. "That support really helps and I think you could see that last Friday [a 5-1 win over Dayton]. This could be the last time the guys play in a Storm uniform."
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