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Published: 4/6/2010

Walleye ready for first playoffs

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The Toledo Walleye have extended their inaugural season with at least two more home games and will open the playoffs Tuesday night at Lucas County Arena.

The Walleye (35-30-7) finished third in the ECHL North Division and earned a playoff berth. Toledo, the No. 8 seed, plays No. 1 seeded Charlotte (43-21-8) in the opening round.

Toledo coach Nick Vitucci said he likes the premise of hosting the first two games. The Walleye went 22-13-1 at home.

"I think it plays in our favor," Vitucci said. "It allows us to play in a comfortable surrounding where we've had success. Obviously it's exciting to have at least a few games at home knowing the support we've had here. It's great to reward them and we look forward to their support during the most important part of the season."

Toledo played the Checkers five times this season and won three games, including once in overtime. The Walleye were 2-1-0 against Charlotte at home.

"We definitely want to win the first two at home send them a message," said forward Evan Rankin, who scored eight goals in the five games against Charlotte. "Any time you get a momentum shift in a game having the fans with you makes it that much more of an effect. If we do get down the fans are behind you and can kick you back in gear. I hope they're loud. It gives you quiet confidence."

The Walleye outscored the Checkers 21-15.

"I'm excited about this for a few reasons. We had a good regular season against them and I think we match up well with them," Vitucci said.

But Charlotte has won eight of its last 10 games. The Checkers were 17 points out of first place in mid-January, but rallied to win the first conference title in franchise history.

Checkers goalie Ryan Munce is 10-1-0 in his last 11 starts. Munce leads the ECHL with a .913 save percentage.

"Obviously we're up against a very good hockey club. They finished the season on a big win streak," Vitucci said. "It's a little different team than we saw before. We will have our hands full."

Vitucci said the key to a successful series is playing consistent for 60 minutes.

"We've had great offensive abilities all year," he said. "But at times our weakness has been trying to be too fancy and that has led to us giving up a little defensively."

Rankin said he expects a physical series.

"We've been waiting for this all year," he said. "Nothing comes easy in the playoffs. There won't be pretty goals any more. We need to do whatever it takes."

Rookie goalie Jordan Pearce posted a 2-1-0 record and had a 3.25 goals against average against the Checkers. Pearce also had a shutout and a .909 saver percentage.

Vitucci said goalie Alec Richards (3.35 GAA) injured his knee and is done for the season. He said Pearce has been handed the reins.

"Jordan has played great. We'll throw the ball to him," Vitucci said.

Rankin, who played with Pearce at Notre Dame, said he saw the netminder put a team on his back.

"We have a lot of confidence in him. He's been outstanding for us lately," Rankin said. "I've seen him take advantage of an opportunity and he took us to the [Frozen Four in 2007-08]."

Rankin scored five goals in Toledo's 7-0 win in Charlotte on Feb. 19. That contest started at 11:59 p.m. and Pearce made 33 saves for his second professional shutout.

Rankin also scored the game-winner in a 6-3 victory on Jan. 10.

Defenseman J.C. Sawyer had a team-high seven assists against the Checkers.

Rankin lead the team in goals scored with 32 and power play goals with nine. Rookie Maxime Tanguay has tallied the most points (69) and assists (44).

Sawyer leads the Walleye with seven game winners.

Vitucci also signed Utah Grizzlies goalie Mitch O'Keefe last week. O'Keefe went 18-13-5 with a 3.18 goals against average for the Grizzlies. Vitucci said O'Keefe also is a strong goalie and he would go to him if "for some reason something happens."

The Walleye will have to keep an eye on Matt Schepke, who had four goals and six points against them.

Munce went 2-2-1 against Toledo with a 4.14 goals against average and a .885 save percentage. Munce (26-14-3) has a 2.77 goals against average, fourth best in the ECHL.

"Ryan has been an excellent goalie for a few years now at the ECHL level," Vitucci said. "He's quick and agile and makes big saves."

Andrew Carroll leads the Checkers with 30 goals. Tyler Doig has a team-high 61 points. Schepke has six-game winning goals.

Vitucci, an ECHL hall of fame goalie, played two seasons in Charlotte (1995-96 and 1996-97). He led the Checkers to an ECHL title in 1996.

"That was a fun part of my career, but everything has changed. It's not even the same arena," Vitucci said. "There's no extra motivation."

In the first meeting between the teams on Jan.10, the Walleye scored four power-play goals to win 6-3 at Lucas County Arena. The Checkers beat Toledo 5-1 on Feb. 8 in Charlotte as they outshot the Walleye 50-27.

Toledo won 6-5 in overtime at the arena March 6. In the final match up March 7, Rankin collected Toledo's lone goal and Munce made 32 saves in a 2-1 Charlotte win. "One of our main goals was to get in the playoffs and we felt if we did, we could make some noise," Vitucci said.

Contact Mark Monroe at:

mmonroe@theblade.com

or 419-724-6354.



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