With their urgency ramped up, the Walleye swarmed all over Evansville to earn an important two points on Wednesday as they took a big step toward qualifying for the playoffs.
Toledo generated 43 shots on goal and shut out the IceMen 3-0 before a crowd of 6,817 at the Huntington Center. Every Walleye player had at least one shot on goal.
Randy Rowe scored the game-winner in the second period. Willie Coetzee, the team’s leading scorer, provided a cushion with his 25th goal this season early in the third. Trevor Parkes added an empty netter with 37 seconds left.
Toledo (34-24-9) strengthened its hold on the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Walleye moved seven points ahead of Kalamazoo for the last qualifying position as the Wings lost in a shootout to Wheeling on Wednesday. The teams play on Friday in Kalamazoo.
“Every game from here is playoffs,” Coetzee said. “All the guys know that. That’s why all of us are playing so hard.”
Walleye goalie Kent Simpson earned his second shutout by registering 26 saves.
“We knew it would be a huge game,” Simpson said. “I’m really happy we got the two points.”
Evansville goalie James Reid was strong in net, keeping the last-place IceMen in the game with 40 saves. Toledo had 13 shots in the first, 19 in the second, and 11 in the third.
“We knew if we took care of things defensively, we would get our scoring opportunities,” Walleye coach Nick Vitucci said.
The Walleye have won three of their last four after losing four straight. “We feel good about it,” Vitucci said. “We just have to continue to move forward. This was a big two points for us.”
Toledo held just a one-goal lead against Evansville (23-38-6) going into the third. But a good passing play led to Coetzee’s team-leading 59th point of the season. Parkes and Aaron Bogosian set Coetzee up to make it 2-0 at the 3-minute mark.
“What a nice tic-tac-toe play,” Vitucci said. “He showed good patience to wait for the goalie’s leg to come up. That was a big goal.”
Toledo killed off two Evansville power plays in the third. The IceMen pulled Reid with 1:39 left, and Coetzee nearly scored twice before Parkes scored his 12th goal of the season into an empty net.
Reid was nothing short of great in the first period to keep it scoreless. Simpson also made several key saves in the opening period.
“We didn’t give up a ton of shots. But in the first period [Simpson] was a wall back there for us,” Vitucci said.
Kyle Rogers was initially credited with Toledo’s first goal. But Rowe, who sent the puck out front toward Rogers, had it deflect off of Evansville’s Darick Ste-Marie and in the net. Rowe got his 13th of season.
Simpson made two good saves to keep Evansville off the board and another one late in the middle period. Simpson (17-13-5) made his fourth straight start.
“I’m just kind of playing, just doing my thing and staying in the moment,” Simpson said. “Things are going my way more. It’s good to get right back in there. It’s good mentally to keep rolling.”
The Walleye have just five more games left in the regular season, including two more at home on Saturday and Sunday against conference-leading Reading.
Toledo has 77 points and is within two points of fourth-place Florida and Elmira. The Walleye, who have missed the playoffs the last two seasons, play Friday at Kalamazoo.
South Carolina and Greenville are just one point in front of the Walleye. “We want home-ice advantage. That would be big for the team,” Coetzee said. “We’re battling hard for that spot right now.”
Kalamazoo (70) is still chasing the Walleye. Toledo can’t quite clinch a spot with a win at Kalamazoo as the K-Wings have one game in hand on the Walleye.
“It’s basically a four-point game for us,” Simpson said. “It’s a swing game. It’s our points or it’s their points.”
FISH TALES: The 19 shots the Walleye took in the second tied their season high for shots in that period. … Coetzee has seven goals and four assists against the IceMen. … The Walleye have scored a league-high 90 goals in the third period. … Reading leads the conference with 92 points. The Royals have clinched a playoff berth for the fourth consecutive year. After playing Reading, Toledo wraps up its season on the road Wednesday at Fort Wayne and at Wheeling (March 29).