Early in a hockey season, with players just getting familiar with each other, inconsistency can be the norm.
Case in point: Just 24 hours after surrendering seven goals in a loss to Reading at the Lucas County Arena, the Toledo Walleye did an about face defensively last night.
Riding the first professional shutout of goaltender Alec Richards, Toledo went to overtime before skating off with a 1-0 victory over the Trenton Devils.
Walleye defenseman Jean-Claude Sawyer sent the crowd of 5,368 home happy 3:53 into overtime, depositing a slap shot from the right point past Devils goalie Dave Caruso, who arguably was even better than Richards.
"I don't know if I've ever been in a 0-0 game," Richards said. "Never in college [at Yale] definitely, and before that I'm not sure. But it was fun. "Before overtime I just said to myself, 'Five minutes.' I needed to take care of business for five minutes. I wasn't worried about the shutout or anything. If it was 5-5 [going to OT] I still would have been happy with the win. You just try to stop one at a time."
Toledo outshot Trenton 44-26, but it wasn't until Sawyer's third goal of the season that Caruso proved human.
"It was a great goalie duel," said Walleye coach Nick Vitucci, an ECHL Hall-of-Famer between the pipes. "Alec played a great game and their goalie played a whale of a game as well.
"It's got to end one way, and you hope it's on a good goal and not a fluky one, and it certainly was a good goal."
If this finish looked like dj vu to Walleye fans, that's because it was Sawyer who delivered the game-winner in similar fashion in Toledo's 4-3 OT win here last Sunday against the Florida Everblades.
"Just like last time, we moved it around a little bit, and I got a shot off from a good location and it went by him," Sawyer said. "We called timeout and Nick talked about the play we wanted to set up with me and [Jamie] Milam up top.
"We've got two pretty good shots, so whichever one could get it off, if there's a guy in front, then we have a good chance to score."
"I saw him wind up," said Richards, who was also the beneficiary on Sawyer's last game-winner. "It was really similar to last Sunday. He's got a cannon back there. I saw him get rid of it and I knew it was in.
"I was really excited to get another win, and to bounce back from the way we played [Friday] night."
The Walleye outshot the Devils 16-7 in the first period, including a few prime chances on Caruso. The middle 20 minutes followed the scoreless script, with Toledo managing to remain even, thanks to back-to-back gems from Richards.
When his team surrendered the puck while on a power play, the Walleye netminder first stoned Trenton's Dan Eves on a straight-on breakaway wrister, then stopped a Jeremy Akeson's bang-bang try on the long rebound with 2:25 left in the second period.
Toledo's greatest opportunity, and biggest disappointment in regulation came while on a 5-on-3 power play that spanned 1:55 from the 12:32 mark of the third period.
Walleye center Justin Hodgman fired through an open crease from the left side, center Adam Hobson was denied from close range in a scramble, and Ryan Smith zipped a point-blank shot high all during that two-man advantage.
But all was forgotten after Sawyer's game-winner off assists from Jamie Milam and Hodgman.
"We're going to have peaks and valleys," Vitucci said of the contrast between Friday's loss and last night's win. "We're not promising anybody championships by any means. This is going to be a learning curve that isn't going to be accomplished overnight. We're going to go through good stretches and bad stretches."
Vitucci was concerned enough to break with conventional wisdom.
"I don't like to do it, but we went over video from [Friday] night's game," he said. "I don't like to show negative video on a game day. I feel like, if players have negative thoughts in their heads, usually it doesn't work out too well.
"But we had so many turnovers in [Friday's] game, we spent time this morning after practice just showing them all. Just to support what we've been telling them. We really eliminated that tonight."
NOTE: Toledo - treated to five straight home games in its inaugural season with its latest ECHL franchise - now embarks on its first road trip. The Walleye travel to Reading on Thursday, and to another new league franchise, Kalamazoo, on Saturday.
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