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Playoff hockey returns to Toledo on Friday night with an intense and tight series expected to unfold between the Walleye and in-state rival Cincinnati.
After a two-year absence, Toledo returns to the Kelly Cup playoffs and will face the Cyclones in a best-of-seven, first-round series. The puck drops for Game 1 at 7:35 p.m. on Friday at the Huntington Center.
Cincinnati (42-22-8) enters as the No. 2 seed and will have home-ice advantage over No. 7 seeded Toledo (37-26-9).
Each team posted 4-3-1 records against each other in the regular season. The head-to-head matchups featured three, one-goal games.
“Both teams bring out the best in each other,” Walleye coach Nick Vitucci said. “I’m excited about it. Both coaching staffs have marveled at the pace of the game and how exciting the games have been. I think both teams have similar skill sets with speed up front, good solid D, and good goalies.”
As is often the case in the playoffs, the series may be decided by the performances between the pipes.
The Walleye have relied on rookie goalie Kent Simpson (20-14-5 with a 2.36 goals-against average) and veteran Jordan Pearce (15-11-3, 2.76 GAA). The Cyclones counter with Michael Houser (17-10-2, 2.55), and Brian Foster (19-7-4, 2.67).
Vitucci, an ECHL hall-of-fame goalie, said net-minding will be pivotal for both sides.
“Goaltending always seems to be one of the story lines,” he said.
Simpson posted a 3-2-0 record in six appearances against Cincinnati, with a 2.00 GAA and a save percentage of .910. Simpson set team records for 20 wins, GAA, and save percentage .912.
Houser was 2-1-0 against Toledo, posting a 1.00 GAA and a save percentage of .963.
Both teams are giving up 2.71 goals a game. The Cyclones outscored Toledo 21-19, while the Walleye held a 240-201 shot advantage.
Vitucci said he will decide Thursday whether Simpson or Pearce will start on Friday.
“It's a great situation,” he said. “It's been fun to see Kent come in to his own the last couple months. He has the hot hand. But in the playoffs you need experience and Jordan has it.”
Although Cincinnati is the higher seed, the series will start in Toledo because of a scheduling conflict at the Cyclones’ home rink, U.S. Bank Arena.
Toledo will be home for the first two games on Friday and Saturday before play shifts to Cincinnati for three straight games. The Walleye went 2-2-1 against the Cyclones at the Huntington Center and were 2-1-0 at U.S. Bank Arena.
“We would love to take advantage of [starting at home],” Vitucci said. “But I’m not sure if there really is a home-ice advantage in this series. Cincinnati has won here and we’ve played well there.” Defenseman Ben Youds led the Walleye in the regular season against the Cyclones, posting six points, including three goals in four games.
The Cyclones’ Mathieu Aubin tallied eight points, including three goals against Toledo.
Walleye forward Willie Coetzee led Toledo in every offensive category during the regular season. Coetzee, who is in his third pro season, had 68 points with 28 goals and 40 assists.
Captain Kyle Rogers was second on the team in points with 46 (15 G, 31 A), followed by Joey Martin’s 45 points (16 G, 29 A).
After missing the playoffs the last two seasons, Vitucci built his team around a veteran core. He brought back Rogers, a 27-year old forward who is in his sixth season. He also acquired future ECHL hall of famer Randy Rowe, former Kalamazoo captain Wes O’Neill, and ex-NHL player Phil Oreskovic.
“I brought those guys to come in and be leaders, not necessarily in points,” Vitucci said. “They’ve provided that. They’ve been remarkable.”
Those four vets each played in 60 games or more for the Walleye. Rogers played in the most games of any player, appearing in all 72 games. The calming presence was especially crucial when the NHL lockout ended, which plundered the Walleye roster.
Rogers said there is an increased sense of urgency among the seasoned players. He pointed out that Rowe, a 12-year veteran who has played in 621 ECHL games, is still seeking his first championship.
“For Randy Rowe it might be his last year,” Rogers said. “So personally I want to try to do everything I can for him. I don’t know how much time I have left and the other guys have left in the game of hockey.”
Toledo set a team record for wins this season with 37 and in points with 83. The attendance record also was broken at the Huntington Center where 226,743 attended the 36 games.
“As an organization, we are thrilled to provide playoff hockey to our fans,” Vitucci said. “It’s exciting to be back at it.”
Walleye officials said good seats are still available for both games. Tickets for adults are $17, and $15 for seniors and children. Tickets can be purchased at the Huntington Center box office, by phone at 419-725-9255, or at toledowalleye.com.
FISH TALES: The team received a boost on Wednesday when F Byron Froese was reassigned from Rockford. Froese ranked seventh on the team in scoring with 12 goals and 21 assists before he was called up the American Hockey League on March 12. ... Cincinnati coach Jarrod Skalde was named ECHL coach of the year on Tuesday. Skalde led the Cyclones to their first North Division title since 2009 and a 13-point improvement over the 2011-12 season. Skalde is in his third season as head coach/director of hockey operations. Vitucci was named ECHL coach of the year in 2005 when he led the Toledo Storm to the playoffs.
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.