BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge
The Walleye players may be hitting the golf course earlier than they wanted, but they can reflect upon a historic season.
The team put together the most successful season in the franchise’s four years of existence. Toledo went 37-26-9 and finished second in the ECHL North Division with 83 points.
The team also qualified for the playoffs for the first time since its inaugural season in 2009-10.
“We had two frustrating seasons, and these guys in this locker room helped us to right the ship and point us in the right direction,” Walleye coach Nick Vitucci said. “This is something to build off.”
The Walleye earned the No. 7 seed in the Kelly Cup playoffs, but fell behind No. 2 seed Cincinnati 3-0 in the best-of-seven series.
Toledo dug out of the hole with two road wins and was within an eyelash of forcing a decisive Game 7. But the Cyclones scored with five seconds left in regulation on April 16 at Huntington Center. The Cyclones won 4-3 in overtime to win the quarterfinal series 4-2.
The only team in the 25-year history of the ECHL to ever rally from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series was Cincinnati in 2010.
“To battle back, down three games, just shows a lot of character on this team,” captain Kyle Rogers said. “It’s a good step for next year.”
The Walleye also set a single-season attendance record with 226,743 fans at 36 regular-season games. In four seasons, 892,689 fans have attended games at Huntington Center.
The Walleye own a 133-127-28 record in the regular season under Vitucci. Toledo has played in 10 playoff games with Vitucci at the helm, going 3-7.
In 2011-12, Vitucci went with a youth movement. The approach led to roster instability when many of the young players were called up to to the higher-level American Hockey League. The Walleye stumbled to a 28-38-6 record and a last-place finish in the North Division.
“The approach this season with the coaches was for the veterans to lead this team,” Rogers said. “We always had three guys there. It was huge for us to have veterans out there to help the younger guys develop and to become better players and people. The approach worked very well.”
When the NHL lockout ended in January, the Walleye lost six of their top 11 scorers to AHL call-ups.
Toledo’s worst stretch followed as the team lost five straight games from Jan. 5 to Jan. 12. It sank to 19-16-4 after losing three straight on the road at Florida.
Rookie forwards Terry Broadhurst and Luke Glendening never returned from their promotions. Forwards Andrej Nestrasil and Byron Froese eventually returned to Toledo, along with defenseman Ben Youds.
Youds and Glendening both were named to the ECHL all-star game before being called up.
“It was a long year with a lot of roster moves again,” Vitucci said. “The NHL lockout ended and caused a lot of chaos for awhile. The younger guys bought into what the veteran leadership was selling. It was a team. A team that I was very proud of.”
Vitucci built his team around veterans, including Rogers, forward Randy Rowe, and defensemen Wes O’Neill and Phil Oreskovic. Others such as Cody Lampl, Travis Novak, and Trevor Parkes stepped up.
The team put together its longest winning streak of six games from Jan. 26 to Feb. 7.
“I can’t say anything bad about these guys with the ups and downs we had this year,” Rogers said. “We all came together as a team and united, and we battled to get into the playoffs.”
Rowe, whose 12th season came to an end with an injury early in the playoffs, earned the ECHL Sportsmanship Award.
The Walleye benefited from roster stability during the first half and posted a 19-13-4 record to pull into a tie for first place with Cincinnati in the North Division.
The strong start allowed Toledo to survive a rough stretch from Feb. 23 to March 13 when the Walleye won just one of nine games. The team earned a playoff berth and won six of its last nine games to end the regular season.
Rogers, who wrapped up his third full season with Toledo, has played in a franchise record 214 games. He is second on the all-time scoring list with 126 points.
Forward Joey Martin spent his second full season in the pros with the Walleye and ranks third in the all- time scoring list with 94 points (38 goals).
“I’m proud of everyone in this locker room,” Martin said. “Everyone battled hard right to the end.”
Defenseman Phil Rauch, a Lambertville native, has been a steady presence on the blue line for two seasons. Rauch has missed just one game and has played in the second-most games (143).
Willie Coetzee led the team in every offensive category during the regular season. Coetzee, in his third pro season, had 68 points with 28 goals and 40 assists.
He also represented the team at the ECHL all-star game.
But Coetzee did not have a point in the first three games of the playoffs and finished with four assists in six games. Coetzee, who led the team in shots, had no shots in the loss in Game 6.
Two goaltenders, rookie Kent Simpson and veteran Jordan Pearce, saw most of the action in net. Simpson posted a 20-14-5 record with a 2.36 goals-against average. Pearce (15-11-3) had a 2.76 GAA.
Simpson started the first three games of the playoff series but lost all three (3.42 GAA) and was replaced by Pearce, who went 2-1 with a 1.95 GAA.
“What a bright future for Kent Simpson,” Vitucci said. “Jordan Pearce was a phenomenal mentor to Kent. Pearce was fantastic for us, as was Kent at the start of the series.”
Vitucci said he liked the his team’s balanced roster, which he described as a blend of young kids, seasoned pros, and veterans.
“I’m proud of the makeup of this team and what everybody put forth this year,” Vitucci said.
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6354, or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.