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The Walleye salvaged two points from a difficult three-game homestand with an interim coach at the helm on Sunday afternoon as Toledo held on for a 5-4 win over Cincinnati on Sunday afternoon.
Todd Griffith and Mike Thomas each scored two goals for Toledo, while Andrej Nestrasil had two assists.
Assistant coach Dan Watson assumed the head coaching duties after Nick Vitucci was suspended for one game for his tirade on the bench in Saturday night’s game.
Toledo (24-27-4) had lost three straight, including two in a row at home. Yet, the Walleye pulled within eight points of the final playoff spot in the ECHL Eastern Conference.
“The first two games were tough to lose,” Watson said. “We needed four if not six points. So we can build off this. It takes 60 minutes of full effort to win.”
The Walleye opened up a 3-1 lead after one period and expanded that to a 5-1 edge midway through the second period before 7,503 spectators at the Huntington Center.
The Cyclones rallied with three unanswered goals and eventually made it 5-4 with less than 10 minutes left in the game.
Toledo hung on, however, behind goalie Jordan Pearce who finished with 30 saves. Pearce made his best stop with eight minutes left to maintain the one-goal lead.
“We needed to put our best effort forth,” Pearce said. “It is essential right now. The playoffs are still a month away but really they are already happening. After losing Friday and Saturday, these points are essential.”
Griffith, who scored a highlight reel goal, said Vitucci’s outburst provided motivation.
“I think I watched that video about 40 times [Saturday] night,” Griffith said. “It’s nice for him to show emotion like that. It goes a long way with the boys. It’s really nice to have a coach who sticks up for his hockey players.”
Defenseman Kyle Page said Vitucci’s actions were the result of pent up frustration shared by the entire team.
“It’s not something you see everyday,” Page said. “It was a frustrating game [Saturday], especially with the way we are in the standings.”
Pearce called Vitucci “a great players’ coach.”
“You always see fire from Nick,” Pearce said. “I think it was built up emotion because of the frustrating weekend on Friday and Saturday. It fires guys up a little bit to see their coach do that.”
Watson said he thought the team came out with more energy on Sunday.
“I think that helped … to see a head coach get fired up like that and show emotion,” Watson said. “Now our guys came out and showed some emotions. They see their coach battle for them, they want to battle for each other.”
The Cyclones (26-20-8) fell out of a tie for that eighth postseason spot with the loss. Joe Devin had a goal and an assist for the Cyclones.
“The biggest thing is that it came against Cincinnati, a team that is ahead of us in the standings,” Page said. “We get two points and they don’t get any.”
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Griffith scored his second goal of the game on a great individual effort. From center ice, Griffith skated in, worked the puck through a defenseman’s skates, and scored on his backhand. Griffith’s terrific goal made it 4-1.
“I just used my speed. I got lucky to put it through his legs. I made a move and put it in,” Griffith said.
“It was nice because I have the family in town. It was good for them to see that kind of goal.”
Toledo went up 5-1 when Thomas scored his second of the contest on a nice assist from Bryan Rufenach. Thomas one timed in Rufenach’s pass across the top of the crease with 10:11 left in the middle period.
The fifth goal also chased Cincinnati goalie Brian Foster (13 saves on 18 shots) while Chet Pickard (nine saves) finished in relief.
“It’s good to have confidence with the lead like that and know you have a good chance to win,” Griffith said. “But we kind of let them back into it. We need to bare down a little bit.”
Devin scored with 7:37 left in the second to pull the Cyclones within three goals and Anthony Luciani added another to make it 5-3 with 16:13 left in the game. Cincinnati added another when Garrett Wilson pounced on a loose puck to make it 5-4 with 9:50 left.
With less than a minute left, Joey Martin had two chances to re-establish the two-goal lead. Cincinnati pulled Pickard with 46 seconds left but Toledo held on.
“We know Cincinnati won’t quit,” Watson said. “They have a lot of comeback wins this year. Give our guys credit, we handled it well.”
Toledo scored first when Kyle Rogers and Thomas got free for a two-on-one breakaway. Rogers connected with Thomas on a perfect cross-ice pass and Thomas one timed it home for a 1-0 lead 9:09 into the game. A squid was hurled on to the ice after Thomas’ fourth goal in a Walleye uniform.
The Cyclones evened the game at 1 as Maury Edwards scored a power play goal with 7:40 left in the first period. Edwards scored on a long slap shot.
Toledo regained the one-goal lead as Griffith deflected a puck past Foster with 7:21 left in the opening period.
Both Griffith and Thomas were added to the roster within the last month. Griffith was acquired in a trade with Reading on Jan. 29, while Thomas was reassigned from Grand Rapids on Feb. 3.
“What great additions,” Watson said. “Griffith is a goal scorer.
“What a beautiful goal, individual effort he had. Thomas will get his nose dirty knowing he’s going to get hit.”
The Walleye seized a 3-1 lead on a nice pass from Nestrasil from the side of the net to Harrison Reed, who tallied his 14th goal of the season with 2:10 left in the first period.
“The confidence builds when you play well right off the start. It continues to build and build,” Watson said.
Toledo travels to play Chicago on Wednesday night before returning home for a game against Wheeling on Friday night. The Walleye play at Chicago on Saturday before hosting Cincinnati once again on Sunday.
“We needed these points,” Griffith said. “Unfortunately we only got two this weekend. That is unacceptable. It is nice to get the two points tonight. But we can’t be giving up points like we did this weekend.”
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.