THE BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH Enlarge | Buy This Photo
With Walleye trainer Brad Fredrick keeping tabs on the out-of-town scoreboard on the Toledo bench with his cell phone, word spread among the players that the team had qualified for the playoffs.
While not the way they preferred, the Walleye earned a spot in the postseason for the first time since their inaugural 2009-10 season.
Toledo lost 2-0 to Reading before a crowd of 7,071 at Huntington Center on Sunday. But the Walleye still earned a playoff berth when Kalamazoo lost 3-2 to Wheeling. The loss eliminated the K-Wings and ensured a spot for the Walleye.
Coach Nick Vitucci popped his head between veterans Kyle Rogers and Randy Rowe to pass on the good news early in the third period.
“I think you could feel a sense of relief on our bench,” Vitucci said. “We’re thrilled to be going into the postseason. Our goal at the start of the year was to get into the playoffs to see what can happen.”
The best Kalamazoo can do is tie Toledo for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference. The Walleye hold the edge in the first tiebreaker, which is victories, excluding shootout wins.
The loudest cheer of day went up with 6:54 left when PA announcer Bobb Vergiels informed the large crowd that the team had made the playoffs.
“It’s great for Toledo,” said Wes O’Neill, one of the veterans Vitucci brought in to end the team’s playoff drought. “We want to win. We’re not happy just getting there. We’re going to hopefully play hockey for a couple more months. We had 10 seconds to enjoy it. We were still trying to beat Reading. They are a good hockey team and we might just face them [in the playoffs].”
The Walleye, who lost to Reading 3-1 on Saturday, played much better on Sunday and outshot the Royals 30-22.
But Toledo (35-26-9) went 0 of 6 on the power play against the first-place Royals (45-19-6), who earned the No. 1 seed on Saturday.
In a scoreless but physical first period, Toledo outshot Reading 11-4. In the second, Trevor Parkes, Stephon Thorne and Ben Youds (team-high eight shots) had good chances but were denied. Toledo had three power plays in the third, including a 5 on 3 for 33 seconds, but could not score.
Reading’s Stanislav Galiev scored a power play goal, and Kirk MacDonald added an empty netter.
Rogers called Saturday night’s loss, in which Toledo was outshot 23-16, “a wake up call.”
“Unfortunately we didn’t get the two points tonight,” Rogers said. “But it was great improvement compared to [Saturday]. We adjusted our game. It’s a step in the right direction.”
Goalie Jordan Pearce, who got his first start since March 13, finished with 20 saves.
Reading goalie Riley Gill earned his third shutout by stopping 30 Walleye shots.
“Sometimes you can play a great game and still lose one,” Vitucci said.
Rowe, who who has played in 721 games but has never won a title, called it a bittersweet loss.
“This is what [the vets] came here for,” Rowe said. “I talked to Nick and the other guys in the summer, and our first goal was to make the playoffs and the second was to go as far as we could. It’s a good group of guys, and I’m proud of them for making the playoffs.”
In its inaugural season, Toledo lost in the first round to the Charlotte Checkers.
The Walleye most likely will not have home ice advantage and will start the postseason on the road. The earliest the playoffs would start is April 3.
“It’s an emotional ride for us veterans,” Rogers said. “We came out strong and then had a slump there last month. But we battled hard.”
Toledo plays at Fort Wayne on Wednesday and closes the regular season on Friday at Wheeling.
“We could still move up in the standings a bit,” Rowe said. “That is our goal. You don’t want to lay back too much. You can’t just turn it on and off.”
FISH TALES: A new franchise record for single season attendance was set on Sunday. The season total attendance was 226,743 this season. ... Vergiels, who called his last regular-season game, was recognized in a pregame ceremony and received another hearty round of boos. ... Toledo wrapped up its regular-season home schedule with an 18-12-6 record at the Huntington Center. ... Toledo has matched the 2009-10 team with the most regular-season wins for the franchise (35).
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.