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Spectacular goaltending by two rookie netminders highlighted a nip and tuck battle between Toledo and Cincinnati in an intense ECHL playoff opener on Friday night.
The Walleye fell 2-1 in double overtime to the Cyclones in an extremely evenly played opening game of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
Both teams scored in the first period. But scoreless periods in the second and third were followed by another goalless overtime period. The contest went to double overtime where Mike Embach scored the game winner before a crowd of 4,042 at the Huntington Center during a game that lasted 3 hours and 31 minutes.
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Both Toledo goalie Kent Simpson and Cincinnati goalie Michael Houser were dominant, particularly in the overtimes. Simpson finished with 36 saves and Houser made just one more to get the win.
“It was a fun game to be a part of,” Simpson said. “We traded chances a little bit. Obviously it sucks to lose. But it’s a grind and that’s what playoff hockey is about. It's two teams battling it out. They got the bounce tonight.”
Embach scored the decisive goal when he jumped on a big rebound off a shot from the point by Jeff Foss 4:48 into overtime.
“There is no better way to get it started than that,” Cincinnati coach Jarrod Skalde said. “We knew it would be a tough series. This was an incredible game. It was a great effort by both teams.”
The Walleye struck first when Trevor Parkes scored on a one-timer off a nice feed right in front of the net from Ben Youds.
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The Cyclones tied it up when Embach beat Simpson, who was screened by his own defenseman on the play, with 11:32 left in the first.
Toledo killed off all five of Cincinnati’s power plays in regulation.
Simpson made 13 saves and Houser had nine stops in the first overtime.
Simpson made a difficult kick save, getting his toe on a shot to keep it 1-all, two minutes into double OT. Houser countered with two saves before Embach scored his second to end it.
Each team finished with 38 shots.
“I’m not surprised at all by how good and close and competitive this game was,” Walleye coach Nick Vitucci said. “The matchups indicated that. And it didn’t disappoint. That is playoff hockey. As a fan that’s the exciting part of it. The opportunities and the saves and the sacrifices is what playoff hockey is about. We have to continue it.”
The teams meet again at 7:35 p.m. today at the Huntington Center in Game 2 in the best-of seven-series.
In the third, the Cyclones went on a late power play with 2:25 left. But the Walleye penalty kill allowed just two shots and Simpson stopped both.
“I just tried to play my game and not focus on the fact that it was overtime and a playoff game,” Simpson said.
In the first period, the Walleye struck first when Parkes scored after Youds brought the puck down low behind the net and centered it right to Parkes’ stick.
Then Toledo’s Joey Martin and Willie Coetzee get free on a two-on-one, shorthanded breakaway. But Houser stopped Martin and then poked the puck away from Travis Novak, who got free on solo break to keep it 1-all late in the first.
“Both goalies made some game-saving saves right to the end,” Skalde said. “Simpson made some big saves and Houser the same. The goaltenders just battled.”
Cincinnati went 42-22-8 during the regular season and entered as the No. 2 seed with home ice advantage over No. 7 seed Toledo (37-26-9).
Although Cincinnati is the higher seed, they started in Toledo because of a scheduling conflict at the Cyclones’ home rink, U.S. Bank Arena. After today’s game, the series shifts to Cincinnati for three straight games.
“This is a huge emotional win for us,” Skalde said. “It can be a letdown though. It’s playoffs so, tomorrow, it's a new day.”
Of the eight games between Toledo and Cincinnati during the regular season, only one was decided by more than two goals.
“The message is that this is a long battle. This is not a one-game battle,” Vitucci said. “You have to pull yourself up out of the trenches when things go against you. That’s what we have to do. We have the leadership and the experience to put this one behind us.”
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.