The common thought among ECHL teams is that if you just make the playoffs anything can happen.
The opening round of the 2014 Kelly Cup playoffs has provided dramatic proof of the truth behind that mantra.
The Toledo Walleye, who missed the playoffs for the third time in five seasons, have to be kicking themselves.
In the Eastern Conference, all four opening-round series featured upsets. The underdog has been top dog in all of the best-of-seven conference quarterfinals series.
Defending ECHL champion Reading earned the No. 1 seed for the playoffs. But the Royals were were eliminated four games to one by No. 8 seed Fort Wayne.
Kalamazoo, which won the North Division title, earned the No. 2 seed. Yet the Wings were ousted by No. 7 Greenville 4-2.
Sixth-seeded Wheeling swept No. 3 South Carolina. And Cincinnati, which was seeded fifth, knocked out No. 4 Orlando.
Dan Watson, Toledo's interim coach, said he has been watching the games online.
“It's good hockey,” Watson said. “The intensity is through the roof. It speaks volumes about how close our conference is. All you have to do is get in and you have the opportunity to win.”
Toledo's hopes of qualifying for the playoffs came to an end when the team lost 11 straight games from Feb. 8 to March 5. The Walleye ended up with a 21-44-7 record and finished last in the Eastern Conference.
“Sometimes you look back and say ‘what if?’ ” Watson said. “You look back at certain games and think if we got one more point in the shootout or if our goalie played well and we still lost. But at the same time by late February … I saw us really falling off. At one point we had to go 17-4 after that [11-game losing streak]. It put it in perspective.”
Last season, the Walleye came close to pulling off their own upset of a higher seed in the first round. Cincinnati (42-22-8) entered the 2013 postseason as the No. 2 seed to face No. 7 seeded Toledo (37-26-9).
The Walleye fell behind 3-0 in the series before rallying. But they fell 4-2 to the Cyclones.
“Our conference is extremely strong from top to bottom,” Watson said. “Even with us this year, we beat Kalamazoo on the road when they were gearing up for a playoff run and we had been eliminated.”
Watson said he was glad to see two former Walleye players score series clinching-goals for their teams in the playoffs.
Former Walleye forward Aaron Clarke scored the series winner for Fort Wayne. Forward Emerson Clark tallied the series-clinching goal for Greenville.
Clarke, an offensive minded forward, was acquired in a trade and later traded himself by Toledo. Clarke posted 19 points, including 13 goals, in 26 games for Toledo.
“He did exactly what we asked him to do,” Watson said. “He was thinking about retiring and he wanted to go to a playoff team. And we made it work for him. He found himself a great spot.”
Emerson Clark was with the Walleye at the start of the season but was traded on Feb. 3. Clark had four assists in 25 games for the Walleye.
“He was a young kid that wanted more of an opportunity,” Watson said. “We couldn't offer him that at that time. We moved him to a team of his choice. He played right away and found a home. He got the series-clinching goal and I felt good for him.”
Watson said other former players he is keeping track of include Byron Froese (Cincinnati), Zach Torquato (Wheeling), and Russ Sinkewich (Idaho).
In the Western Conference, the lower seed in two of the four matchups won the series. The No. 2 seed Ontario Reign were swept by seventh-seeded Stockton. No. 3 Utah fell 4-1 to sixth-seeded Bakersfield.
The wild opening round also featured the longest game in ECHL history.
Game 6 of the series between Idaho and Colorado lasted four overtimes. The teams batted for 137 minutes and 18 seconds before Idaho prevailed.
The teams combined for 151 shots on goal — Colorado with 85 and Idaho with 66 — setting a new ECHL record for most shots on goal in a game.
“It was up and down and back and forth,” Watson said. “It was a slugfest. What impressed me was that the play didn't drop off that much.”
Watson, who has already had a phone interview to officially take over as head coach of the Walleye, said he is scouting for players during the playoffs.
“I'm looking for players to bring in case I'm named the Walleye coach, which would be fantastic,” he said.