Despite an unbelievable and unlikely four-goal outburst by defenseman Bryan Rufenach, the Toledo Walleye could not overcome a five-goal deficit at a special morning game at the Huntington Center on Wednesday.
The 7-4 loss to the Chicago Express could not put a damper on the excited bursts of cheering from enthusiastic young students at the School Celebration Day game. Toledo fell behind Chicago 5-0 early in the second period, but the crowd of 6,605 that consisted primarily of kids remained undaunted.
And Rufenach was equally unflappable. The rookie scored two goals in the second period and added two more in the third. Rufenach did not have a goal coming into the game and had scored a total of just four in 33 games his senior year at Clarkson University last season.
"The last time I had three or four goals was when I was 4," Rufenach said. "It just seemed that the luck went my way today. It was just one of those things. This time the bounces went my way. I happened to put them in today. I hope it continues."
Toledo outshot Chicago 44-35, but Walleye goalie Carter Hutton was hung out to dry by his defense often and finished with 28 saves.
Already up 2-0 to start the second period, Chicago rattled off three unanswered goals over a span of 2:01 to seize a 5-0 lead.
Toledo coach Nick Vitucci spent a long time addressing his team after the game and said he challenged his players about their commitment on defense both by the forwards and defensemen.
"I laid down the gauntlet about what the expectations are and if the players here don’t want to execute them, then we will find other players who will," Vitucci said. "Defensive hockey is a commitment and we have a handful of guys that aren’t committed or are scared to commit."
Toledo fell to 2-6-0 overall and 1-5-0 at home. Chicago (6-3-0) moved into a tie for first place in the ECHL North Division where the Walleye sit in last.
Down by five, Toledo finally answered when Rufenach scored on a rebound 5:58 into the second period. Rufenach then scored on the power play with another rebound goal 3:11 after his first to pull Toledo within three.
Rufenach, a seventh round pick of the Detroit Red Wings in 2007, notched his hat trick midway through the third. He added his fourth on a shot from the point with 10:33 left to make it 6-4.
"I didn’t really think today. I just reacted and worked hard," he said. "I didn’t worry about the little things. I just worried about my job. The guys worked hard to get the puck to the net and a couple of times it came right out to me and I was lucky to be in the right spot."
Vitucci said he sat Rufenach down a few games ago as a healthy scratch because he was trying to do too much.
"He simplified his game and this is the perfect reward," Vitucci said. "It’s fun to see for him. He is an offensive guy who likes to jump into the play."
The expansion Express, who are coached by former Toledo Goaldigger player Steve Martinson, have defeated the Walleye three times and have outscored them 14-5.
Chicago took a 1-0 lead on a power play goal just 4:50 into the game. Blair Riley scored on a one timer after the puck hit off the boards behind the net and bounced right on to his stick.
The Express went up 2-0 when Devin DiDiomete scored on a rebound goal 11:31 into the contest.
Chicago had considerably more jump early on in the morning contest, finishing the first period with a 17-13 advantage in shots.
Walleye defenseman Simon Danis-Pepin prevented a third goal late in the first when he tied up an Express player who was about to pounce on a rebound. Paul Zanette then nearly put Toledo on the board but his shot went wide.
Up by two, Chicago grabbed a three-goal lead when Tyler Donati score an easy goal. Donati skated unimpeded across the top of the crease and sent a backhander past Hutton.
Just 1:01 later, the Express went up 4-0 as Bobby Robins tipped in a shot from the point. Then just one minute after that, Chicago took a 5-0 cushion on Kyle Ostrow’s goal.
After Rufenach scored his back-to-back markers, Chicago then stuck the dagger as Robins scored his second of the day with 1:35 left in the middle period for a 6-2 lead. Chicago tacked on an empty net goal.
Both Vitucci and Rufenach said Hutton (1-3-0) could not be blamed for the lose.
"Hutty played a great game. It was hard to see that many goals go in on him," Rufenach said. "We have to play better defensively.":
It was the third annual School Celebration Day. Genoa Middle School teacher Chris Rawski said he has taken his students each season.
"We use this game as a way to plan a collaborative, co-curricular unit themed around hockey. The game itself is a culminating activity," Rawski said. "Each year, the game has been exciting and interactive."
The students were still doing the wave at end.
"It’s a lot of fun," Vitucci said. "The kids are loud and boisterous. Hopefully it’s cultivating future hockey fans. From a players’ standpoint, it’s not a big difference. We practice this time every day."
Toledo is back at home on Friday night when the Walleye host Gwinnett at 7 p.m. The teams meet again on Saturday at the Huntington Center.
G Thomas McCollum, who was called up to Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League on Monday, will not return until after the weekend. ... The Northwood High School band performed the National Anthem before the game. ... The Walleye had plenty of offensive chances and made good on four but many others proved fruitless. "We’ve got offense in this locker room, it just hasn’t come in waves like we thought ti would," Vitucci said. ... Hutton prevented a seventh goal when the Express got free with a two-on-one breakaway midway through the third period. Hutton made a kick save while doing the splits. "If it wasn’t for him it would have been five or six more tonight," Vitucci said.
Contact Mark Monroe at: email@example.com, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade