Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Injuries, promotions sidetracked Walleye

Elusive consistency led to team missing playoffs


Andy Bohmbach, front, battling for the puck with Cincinnati's Phil Youngclaus, was the Walleye's leading scorer with 72 points.

The Blade/Andy Morrison
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The Walleye went belly up to end their second season, but not without a fight after being on the hook without key players for long stretches.

The team hovered around the .500 mark for the entire season. Toledo fell into last place in the ECHL North Division on Nov. 10 and could never climb out of the basement.

Toledo finished with a 33-33-6 record and failed to qualify for the playoffs.

Coach Nick Vitucci summed up the season in one word: "frustration."

"It was a battle every day because of the inconsistency of our lineup," Vitucci said.

Forty-four players suited up for Vitucci this season, including five different goalies. The roster fluctuation was due to long-term injuries and promotions to the American Hockey League.

In its first year as an organization last season, the team qualified for the ECHL playoffs. Vitucci and his players set their sights on winning a Kelly Cup in year two.

Toledo opened its second season with a 4-0 win over Wheeling as goalie Jordan Pearce got a shutout with 36 saves. But over their first 29 games, the Walleye won just 11 times.

The team started out 4-8-2 and then was 6-11-2 by Dec. 1. On New Year's Day, the team had a 12-15-2 record.

On Jan. 23, the Walleye put together five straight wins to reach the .500 mark for the first time since Halloween. Toledo continued its hot streak, winning eight of 10 to move over the .500 mark for the first time since the first game of the season with a 21-20-3 record on Feb. 5. The team then went 12-13-3 down the stretch.

"The call-ups affect you because you lose key personnel. Our goaltending situation was influx for quite a while," Vitucci said. "The biggest thing was the fact that we lost key players to injuries."

Vitucci said the major losses were veteran forwards Ryan Stokes and Scooter Smith to injuries and enforcer Adam Keefe to a mid-season, permanent call-up.

"They have leadership and passion. They challenge players in the room," Vitucci said. "With those guys out, you lose a bit of your DNA."

The team lost three times as many days on the ice due to injury this season compared to last year. But even with the losses, it still was in the hunt for the playoffs all season.

The team was consistently inconsistent from game to game and period to period. It also lacked physicality.

"We had it, but we lost it," Vitucci said. "We lost a lot of focus. They brought a lot of reckless energy, and we lost them the majority of the season."

Toledo had the third highest attendance in the league, with an average of 5,953 fans at the Huntington Center. There were nine sellouts. But the Walleye struggled at home and finished with a 16-17-3 record.

"Our fans are great and very supportive," Vitucci said.

The team had the longest road winning streak of any ECHL team this season. Toledo won six straight games away from home from Jan. 15 to Feb. 12. It also had a better overall road record (17-16-3).

Another bright spot was the line of Andy Bohmbach, Mike Hedden, and Evan Rankin.

"They were big for us," Vitucci said. "They complemented each other very well."

Bohmbach, a rookie, led all first-year players with 72 points. Bohmbach scored 28 goals and had 44 assists to make the All-ECHL rookie team.

Hedden and Rankin were the Walleye's second and third-leading scorers behind Bohmbach. Rankin tallied 55 points (23 goals and 32 assists), while Hedden finished with 52 points (32 G, 20 A). Rankin and Hedden each scored hat tricks in games that Toledo would lose.

Pearce, a second-year pro who started his career in Toledo last season, also started this year with the Walleye. But Pearce was called up to Grand Rapids of the AHL early in the season and never came back after performing well there.

Thomas McCollum exchanged spots with Pearce and was Toledo's No. 1 netminder over the final month. He appeared in 19 straight games and finished with a 2.76 goals against average. McCollum, 21, started 14 straight games and had three shutouts for the Walleye. He had an 11-9-2 record before being called up the last week of the season.

Rookie Peter Leblanc had been named Toledo's representative in the ECHL all-star game before being called up to Rockford for the remainder of the season. He had eight goals and 14 assists in 22 games for the Walleye.

Vitucci made two trades during the season, acquiring Tyler Doig and Jason Lepine. Doig finished fifth on the team with 47 points. Lepine led all ECHL defensemen with 45 points.

Veteran Randy Rowe scored 19 goals and had 30 assists. In his final season, Scooter Smith was sidelined for much of the year with injury. Scott Fletcher led the team with 179 penalty minutes.

The team's penalty kill was the third-worst unit in the ECHL. The team's power play struggled for much of the season, finishing 13th out of 19 teams.

Yesterday Vitucci held meetings with his players. He said he'd like to have seven to eight of them back next year.

"We'll let this digest, but then we'll get right back out on the recruiting trail," he said.

Vitucci said it wasn't the season he had envisioned.

"There are 19 ECHL teams that had a goal of winning a championship," he said. "But 18 of them aren't going to."

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

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