Toledo Walleye coach Nick Vitucci minced no words in a pregame speech, informing his players he would replace the bulk of the roster if they did not step up Saturday night.
For two periods, job security looked to be ensured for the Walleye as they grabbed a 3-0 lead. But South Carolina, the defending ECHL champions, scored five unanswered goals to pin Toledo with an extremely deflating 5-3 loss.
"It's disappointing," Vitucci said. "Obviously I was excited with the progress we made the first two periods. Our energy level was higher. But the defending champions are certainly not going to lay down. We made a couple mistakes. We did not lay down by any means. But we did not find a way to pull it out either."
The Walleye responded to the coach's challenge with two first-period goals - one shorthanded and one on the power play. Toledo then had a 3-1 lead entering the third period before South Carolina tied it with goals 53 seconds apart.
Then just seven seconds into a power play, defenseman Josh Godfrey scored the game-winner on a long shot from just inside the blue line. Walleye goalie Jordan Pearce, who was solid and spectacular at times, was screened on the play. He finished with 35 saves.
Defenseman J.C. Sawyer kept his hot streak going with a goal and an assist. Forward Derek Nesbitt made it 2-0 in the first period. Toledo rookie Travis Ehrhardt recorded his first pro goal for a 3-0 Walleye lead in front of 6,688 at Lucas County Arena.
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"The first two periods we were great," Sawyer said. "We carried the momentum. Pearce had a great game for us. When you go into the third period with a 3-1 lead, you expect to win. When that doesn't happen it takes the wind out of your sails."
Toledo fell to 7-7-3 and has now lost seven of its last nine games, including three out of four at home. The teams face off again today at 5:30 p.m.
"We're .500 right now," Vitucci said. "And that stinks. It's average. There's no excitement at all in that. It's a huge game [today]."
Toledo is in the middle of an eight-game home stand, where it fell to 6-5-0, and capturing two points each night is becoming imperative.
"In the third period we were flat and we sat back," Sawyer said. "But in the life of hockey, we've got another chance to kick the can [today]. We need to get going and put some wins together."
Sawyer said Vitucci told the team it had to be more urgent in the defensive end.
"We have the skill to win every game at home with our fans and this building," he said. "Everything is set up perfectly to be successful at home. We need to find a way to do it."
Right winger Mark Nebus and Sawyer got free on a two-on-one breakaway in the first. Nebus showed great patience to get the defender to go down and then sent a perfect feed to Sawyer, who one-timed it. Sawyer took over the team lead in points (20 points) and gave the Walleye a 1-0 edge.
Nesbitt then gave Toledo a 2-0 cushion when he scored with one second left on a power play. Chris Robertson got the first shot and Nesbitt followed with a top-shelf rebound.
Pearce made key, quality saves late in the first and early in the second. He then came up with two more outstanding stops, one with
3:00 left in the second and the other with 30 seconds.
Ehrhardt drilled a shot from the left slot that whizzed by Todd Ford's left shoulder for a 3-0 Toledo advantage. Yet just 16 seconds later, South Carolina got on the board.
Moments later Pearce gave up his second of the night on Rob Ricci's one-timer. Just 53 seconds after that, South Carolina tied it after a Walleye turnover at their blue line. The Stingrays capped it with an empty netter with 1:10 left.
"We're getting there," Vitucci said. "It was better. Right to the end we played hard. There was more passion. But I think we have another level we can take it to."
FISH TALES: The Walleye have lost just twice this season when leading after the second period. … Nebus squared off with Spencer Carbery in a crowd pleasing, third-period fight. Both exchanged multiple blows before Nebus took Carbery down. … A huge walleye was tossed on to the ice after Toledo's second goal. … Both teams came into the game with struggling goalies. Pearce (2-5-1) has lost five straight. Ford (36 saves) was on a three-game losing streak with a 3.53 goals against average. … The Walleye killed two penalties and doubled up the Stingrays on shots (16-8) in the opening period. Toledo went 1 of 4 on the power play. South Carolina was 1 of 6.
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