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When the Walleye’s postseason run ended in abrupt and astonishing fashion on Tuesday night, it also closed an entertaining series that appeared headed to a dramatic climax in Cincinnati.
Toledo grabbed a spot in the postseason for the second time in the franchise’s four-year history. But the Walleye quickly fell into a three-games-to-none hole in their best-of-seven playoff series against the Cyclones.
Yet the Walleye rallied back in the series with two wins in Cincinnati and were on the brink of forcing a decisive Game 7. But the Cyclones stunned a crowd of 4,333 at the Huntington Center by scoring with 5.1 seconds left to tie Game 6 at 3. Cincinnati then ended Toledo’s season 3:05 into overtime.
Both coaches said the series turned on puck luck, with the Cyclones enjoying favorable bounces in the first three games and in Game 6 of the ECHL Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
“There were some strange bounces that ended up in our net,” Walleye coach Nick Vitucci said. “So it’s hard to swallow. But that is part of the game that makes it so great. Any kind of goal can win or lose the series for you.”
The Cyclones tied the game in the final seconds after a wild and lengthy scramble around the Walleye net. Garrett Wilson sent a puck from behind the net, and it bounced off of Walleye defenseman Max Nicastro and behind goalie Jordan Pearce. It suddenly silenced a raucous Toledo crowd.
“We got the bounces back,” Cincinnati coach Jarrod Skalde said. “We had them early in the series, and then we lost them. The puck found a way in. That’s just playoff hockey. That is the way things go.”
Pearce, who started the last three games of the series after replacing rookie Kent Simpson, made 33 saves to lead the Walleye to a 3-2 win in double overtime in Game 4. Pearce then made 34 saves in Toledo’s 3-1 win on Saturday that forced Game 6. He had 33 stops on Tuesday.
Three of the Cyclones’ goals came on shots from behind the net.
“We just felt we needed to put pressure on Pearce because he had played absolutely terrific since coming in,” Skalde said. “We just wanted to get pucks to the net. You don’t expect to score from behind the goal line.”
Walleye captain Kyle Rogers said the puck “just bounced in” for Cincinnati on Tuesday.
“Everyone was trying [on the tying goal],” Rogers said. “Everyone was down there in that mess. It was a lucky puck bounce for Cincinnati. Everyone was digging down low. That’s playoff hockey.”
Cincinnati, the only franchise in the 25-year history of the ECHL to rally from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series, survived and avoided a Game 7 at U.S. Bank Arena. The Cyclones won the series 4-2.
“This was huge,” Skalde said. “Going back for Game 7, it would be anybody’s game. They had success in our building. They had success in the playoffs in our building. We weren’t looking at this as do or die. But the momentum swings were really devastating.”
Forward Joey Martin, who scored three goals and had two assists in the series, said the team believed it would rally to advance to the Kelly Cup semifinals.
“Even when we were down 3-0 we never thought we were out of it,” Martin said. “To come that close to forcing a Game 7 shows a lot of character.”
As the dust was still settling on the unsettling loss, Vitucci reflected on the series.
“We played hard,” Vitucci said. “Our forecheck was tenacious. We caused a lot of turnovers and created a lot of chances.”
Vitucci put the season into perspective. The Walleye made the playoffs in their first year in 2009-10 but missed the postseason the last two seasons. Vitucci brought in vets Rogers, Randy Rowe, Phil Oreskovic, and Wes O'Neill to end the drought.
“We went through a lot of adversity, a lot of roster moves,” he said. “I credit the leadership in our locker room. That’s what they were brought in for. We wanted to provide our fans with a solid season and I think we did that. It’s a stepping stone.”
Contact Mark Monroe at: email@example.com, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.