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Published: Friday, 3/18/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Playoff race heats up for Toledo

Tight ECHL standings give Walleye hope with 9 games left

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Although they are still in the chase for a spot in the ECHL playoffs, the Toledo Walleye are playing the role of hunters rather than the hunted.

Toledo enters the final three weeks of the regular season in last place in the North Division. With nine games left, 18 points are still available for the Walleye to make up ground. Toledo has a 29-29-5 record and has 63 total points.

The team has five homes games remaining. The Walleye play three straight weekend games beginning Friday night at the Huntington Center.

"It is urgency time now," Walleye coach Nick Vitucci said. "We need to have a good weekend here at home. It is an important stretch for us."

The team suffered a tough 3-1 setback on the road at Wheeling Wednesday night and now trails Gwinnett (29-27-7) by two points for ninth place in the 11-team Eastern Conference.

The top eight teams qualify for the playoffs. The Walleye are four points out of that eighth spot which is currently held by Cincinnati. Toledo has three games left against the Cyclones.

No team in the Eastern Conference has yet to clinch a playoff spot. After the top three teams (Reading, Greenville, and Kalamazoo), just nine points separate the next seven teams that are battling for the other five spots.

Conversely, six of the seven slots in the Western Conference have already been secured.

"By all means everyone is desperate," Vitucci said. "It's not only the teams that are not in yet, but the other teams also want to improve their playoff seeds. Everyone is playing hard.

"There is a lot of parity in this conference," he said. "Over these final nine games we could get to fifth place, realistically, or we can be in 10th."

Vitucci recalled one season when he was coaching the Storm, when his team entered the final week with a chance to finish second or out of the playoffs.

In a league that is often streaky, Vitucci hopes his team catches fire down the stretch. The team's longest winning streak was five games. That came in mid-January. The team's longest losing streak has been three games.

"I can't look into a crystal ball with what other teams do," Vitucci said. "But I think winning six of nine could do it [ensure a playoff spot]."

Toledo also has games in hand on two of the teams in front of it in the conference.

The performance of the team's top line of Andy Bohmbach, Mike Hedden, and Evan Rankin will be pivotal. Bohmbach, a rookie, has 22 goals and 38 assists, and has been consistent all season. Second-year pro Hedden (28 G, 14 A) and third-year pro Rankin (17 G, 27 A) have been on fire.

Barring any injuries to the team's parent clubs, the fate of the team rests largely in the hands of goalie Thomas McCollum. The No. 1 draft choice of the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 has been with Toledo since Feb. 23. McCollum has started eight straight games. He has an 8-7-1 record with one shutout. McCollum's goals against average is 2.98 and his save percentage is .909.

"We will see how it goes," Vitucci said. "If he needs a night off to recharge, we can look at Joe Palmer. He is a capable goaltender. As of this point, Thomas is our No. 1 goalie and we will ride him. But we also know we need two strong goaltenders."

Vitucci said he anticipates veteran defenseman Ryan Stokes to return from the injured reserve list this weekend. Forward Scooter Smith may be back next week.

"With nine games left, we're very confident," Vitucci said. "With three games at home this weekend, it can be a great way to get rolling. If we beat the teams we should beat, we will be in fine shape."

Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com or 419-724-6354.



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