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Published: Tuesday, 3/30/2010

1st season a success: Walleye close to playoff spot

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The Toledo Walleye have experienced the usual ups and downs of an ECHL season, but the organization's inaugural season has been relatively smooth and undeniably successful.

The bottom line on the Walleye's 2009-10 season so far is they are within a whisker of clinching a playoff spot. With one win in the final three regular-season games, Toledo is in the Kelly Cup playoffs. Qualifying for the postseason in the first season of existence should be a point of pride for Walleye officials, coaches, players, and their fans.

The organization certainly experienced success at the box office with 12 sellouts in 36 games. A total of 226,575 spectators entered the turnstiles at the sparkling new Lucas County Arena. The previous season-high total for a Toledo hockey team was 177,988 set in 1977-78 by the Goaldiggers.

Toledo ranked second in the league in attendance behind Ontario, Calif. The average size of crowds has been 6,294, and Toledo finished 22-13-1 at home.

The Walleye (35-28-6) are tied with Reading for the seventh playoff spot. The top eight teams in the American Conference qualify and six teams have clinched a berth. Toledo plays at Johnstown (17-41-11) tomorrow and closes the regular season with road games on Friday and Saturday at first-place Kalamazoo (40-20-9).

Because of injuries, call-ups, trades, and defections, 49 players have donned a Walleye jersey this season. Only nine of 22 players on the Walleye's opening day roster appeared in the lineup Sunday.

But both opening day goalies, rookies Alec Richards and Jordan Pearce, are still with the team. Coach Nick Vitucci said the performance of the two goalies has everything to do with the team's record.

"The success of this hockey team with our wins is a little bit of a mirage with the way they are playing back there," Vitucci said.

Pearce has appeared in 35 games, Richards in 33. Pearce (15-14-2) has two shutouts and a 3.58 goals-against average. Richards (17-12-4) has a 3.34 GAA and one shutout. Pearce stopped a season-high 53 shots in a key 6-3 win over Kalamazoo on Sunday.

Forward Maxime Tanguay has played in the second- most games (63) and is the team's leading scorer with 25 goals and 43 assists. J.C. Sawyer leads ECHL defensemen with 56 points (21 G, 37 A). Sawyer has appeared in a team-high 65 games and has scored a league-leading seven game-winning goals.

Toledo has the third-best power play record in the league, scoring on 22.1 percent of its chances. But the Walleye are second to the bottom in the penalty kill (78.9 percent).

Toledo also has been outscored 260-246, highlighting the occasional deficiency of a defense that has been suspect at times with defensemen getting caught trapping and forwards not back-checking aggressively.

Frequent odd-man rushes and a lack of physicality have drawn the ire of some fans. Others see a team that struggles to put together a 60-minute game and plays uninspired at times.

But more often the highly skilled and speedy team has shown the ability to score goals seemingly at will and in bunches. The team also has 1,392 penalty minutes, which is fifth-most in the league.

The Walleye are 23-3-4 when leading after two periods but are 8-21-1 when trailing after two. Toledo has a 13-15-5 record on the road.

On opening night on Oct. 16, the Walleye's bid to break in its brand new tank at LCA hit a snag.

The largest crowd to ever watch a minor league professional hockey game in Toledo saw the Walleye drop a 2-1 decision to defending ECHL champion Florida.

The standing-room-only crowd of 8,000 was the largest since 5,959 packed the Sports Arena for a Goaldiggers game in the 1975 Turner Cup finals.

Michigander Evan Rankin recorded the first shot in franchise history. Tanguay, a Canadian whose brother Alex is an NHL star, scored the first goal in the organization's history early in the third period. After Tanguay knocked in a rebound, two lunker-sized walleye were hurled on to the ice from the crowd in celebration - a tradition that continued all season.

But the Everblades killed seven Walleye power plays to put a damper on the return of hockey after a two-year absence.

"It was a great feeling," Tanguay said after the game. "The crowd is excited for this team. I just wish we could have won."

Richards, a Yale graduate, finished with 25 saves.

"It was pretty special," Richards said. "It was my first pro game and the first game in this beautiful arena. We just came up a bit short."

Fifteen of Toledo's first 21 games took place at the downtown arena. At that point the team's record stood at 9-8-4.

The team fell below the .500 mark on Dec. 9 when Toledo lost its third straight to fall to 9-10-4. It was the first and only time the team had a losing record.

But the Walleye then reeled off a season-high, eight-game winning streak to improve to 17-10-3. Toledo won 14 of 17.

The Walleye (23-13-4) won their sixth straight and took sole possession of first place in the North Division on Jan. 13.

But Toledo then lost seven of nine and fell into the basement. In a 1-0 home loss to Cincinnati, the Walleye had a 5-on-3 man advantage late in the game for 1:20 but managed just one shot. The Cyclones cleared the puck four times and a crowd of 6,296 grew restless and vocally irritated late in the game.

The organization paid tribute to the rich tradition of pro hockey in Toledo with a

"Hockey History Weekend" March 6-7. Eleven championship banners were raised to the rafters of LCA as the organization recognized the Mercurys, Buckeyes, Blades, Hornets, Goaldiggers, and Storm (1991-2007) with several former players in attendance.

The Walleye fell into last on March 13, matching their season-high four game losing streak. The Walleye continued to flounder entering the final two months, winning just six of 18 games from Feb. 6 to March 13. And on March 9, Vitucci traded fan-favorite forward Malcolm MacMillan, the first player signed in franchise history.

"We are desperate to get a playoff spot," Vitucci said after the trade. "I want to put us in the best position to do that."

In return, Toledo acquired swift forward Tony Romano, who has 12 points in nine games since he joined the team. Romano has scored six goals.

But Toledo has won just four of nine down the stretch to stay on the fringe of earning a playoff berth. Last Friday, the Walleye held a 4-2 lead over the last-place Johnstown with 15:55

remaining only to lose 7-4.

Toledo fell three points behind Reading in the race for the seventh seed in the ECHL playoffs.

Yet the Walleye put back-to-back home wins together, including a 5-1 rout of Wheeling before a capacity crowd of 8,200 on Saturday. It was the 12th sellout of the season.

If Toledo gets one more win, Trenton and Gwinnett would not be able to catch the Walleye in the standings and Toledo would clinch a playoff berth.

"We just need to take care of our own business," Vitucci said.

Contact Mark Monroe at:

mmonroe@theblade.com

or 419-724-6354.



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