The Walleye dominated Wheeling on Sunday and seemed well on the way to earning two valuable points, but the momentum was snuffed out in an instant.
Toledo jumped all over the Nailers with two goals and 21 shots in the first period. But Wheeling rallied with two goals 33 seconds apart in the third period to hand Toledo a stunning 3-2 setback.
Veterans Randy Rowe and Kyle Rogers scored in the first period to stake the Walleye to a 2-0 lead.
The Walleye (33-24-9) had defeated the Nailers in back-to-back games.
The team's point total remained at 75 and Toledo sits in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with six games left in the regular season.
“When the playoffs come along you have to learn how to win a game by being up by one goal,” Rowe said.
“It's a little disappointing that happened. But at the same time it's a positive that every game we got a little bit better.”
Toledo outshot Wheeling 44-18, including 21-9 in the first period, but lost for the first time this season to the Nailers.
Wheeling pulled within one with a power play goal in the second. The Nailers tied it at 2 on former Walleye Zack Torquato's power-play goal on a shot from the point with 11:27 left. Wheeling then seized a 3-2 lead as Matt Germain scored on his own rebound 33 seconds later.
Coach Nick Vitucci said overall he was happy with his team's effort. The Walleye played four games in five days, earning four out of eight points.
“The result isn't a positive one,” Vitucci said. “But we played hard. It's a tough task to ask a team to beat the same team three times.”
Toledo goalie Kent Simpson, who finished with 15 saves, gave up the tying marker on Wheeling's first shot of the third period.
“We definitely wanted those two points,” Rogers said. “There are a lot of positives. But unfortunately they snuck two goals past us.”
The Walleye had two late power plays, including a four-minute chance with the man advantage, but could not tie it. The Walleye managed just two shots in four minutes.
“In the four-minute one we didn't generate a ton. But we threw everything but the kitchen sink on the second one right to the final buzzer,” Vitucci said.
With Simpson pulled for the extra attacker, Rogers looked like he had scored with 17 seconds left. Instead, referee Tom Chmielewski blew the play dead.
“We got the puck to the net and we had four guys jamming at it,” Rogers said. “I couldn't tell if it went in or not. But Tom's a good ref. He talked it over with his linesmen.”
There were three fights, including two involving Toledo's Stephon Thorne, before 5,008 spectators at the Huntington Center.
“It was playoff hockey out there,” Rogers said. “It was like a best-of-three series.”
In the first period, Toledo had just killed off a penalty when Rowe scored on a rebound. It was Rowe's 12th of the season and 250th of his 12-year career.
“It feels good but a championship would be better,” said Rowe, who has played in 717 games but has never won a title. “I wouldn't care if I had zero goals or 1,000. It'd be nice to win a championship. It would have been better if we had won.”
The Walleye are six points ahead of Kalamazoo for the final playoff spot, yet only four points out of fourth. The teams meet at Kalamazoo on Friday. The K-Wings lost 9-2 to Greenville on Sunday.
“It's a tight race,” Rowe said. “You never know what's going to happen. Hopefully we are in good enough position that if we go .500 the rest of the season we should be in.”
Rogers scored a power play goal to give Toledo a 2-0 lead with 7:19 left in the first. Travis Novak made a pass out front to get the first assist on Rogers' 13th goal of the season. “In the first period we took it to them,” Rogers said. “We have to take what we had and build on it.”
The Walleye have three games left at home. Toledo hosts last-place Evansville on Wednesday followed by Reading next Saturday and Sunday. The Royals have clinched a playoff spot and lead the conference.
“We are six points up on a playoff spot and we are within striking distance of fourth place in the conference,” Vitucci said.
“We are right there. We had a positive weekend and we can move forward with good thoughts about how we're playing right now.”
FISH TALES: Wheeling F Tyler Pilmore, a Sylvania native who played at Northview, started for the Nailers. Pilmore, who played at Ohio University, made his pro debut on Saturday night. … Bobb Vergiels, longtime public address announcer, celebrated his 61st birthday. … Thorne battled Wheeling's Joe Tolles, a Toledo native, in a first-period fight.
Contact Mark Monroe at: email@example.com, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.