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Walleye

Walleye's grueling road trip could pay dividends

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    Walleye players celebrate after a goal during a win over Quad City on October 21. The Walleye have been dealt an abnormally long trip for the beginning of the 2017-18 season.

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    Toledo's Christian Hilbrich (8) takes a shot at goal during the home opener for the Toledo Walleye against the Quad City Mallards.

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A grueling trip for the road-weary Toledo Walleye might end up being beneficial for a team still developing in the early going.

The Walleye (3-2-1) have spent a full week away from home, going 1-1-1 so far on a trip with a final game at Worcester (Mass.) on Tuesday.

“It's a little bizarre,” coach Dan Watson said. “It's an awkward road trip. It's never easy. You try to use it [to your advantage]. They spend a lot of time with each other. It's paying dividends. Guys are sticking up for each other. They're blocking shots and doing the right things. It is helping. But it's one of those things where it's still a process.”

The team, which travels by sleeper bus, started the trek overnight Oct. 24 with a seven-and-a-half hour drive to Reading, Pa.

After losing 4-3 in overtime to the Royals on Thursday night, the team traveled five-and-a-half hours north to Glens Falls, N.Y. to play the Adirondack Thunder on Friday and Saturday. They split with the Thunder, losing 5-3 before winning 4-2.

“You get into Adirondack at 4 a.m. and then you're expected to be at your best that night,” Watson said. “It's a quick turnaround.”

The team then bused three hours further East to Worcester for a game Tuesday against the Railers. Immediately afterward, they will travel almost 12 hours back to Toledo.

“You drive overnight from one city to another. You show up and the other team is waiting for you,” Watson said. “They get you moving all over the place. But that's our league. Every team has to do it. There's not much you can do.”

He said often it's difficult for players to get a good night's sleep in a hotel. Last year's team also had a long trip West to Alaska and Utah in mid-December. But most of that travel was by plane.

“You're sleeping in different beds. You're trying to find a good restaurant that provides meals and nutrition to be at your best,” Watson said. “It can become a jigsaw puzzle.”

But he said the team is learning what it takes to win on the road. Eleven players who made the trip are new to the team this year, and 11 others had seen some time in a Walleye uniform.

“They're learning each others' tendencies. So there are some positives,” Watson said.

Watson said it could take 10 to 15 games into the season before all of the players are on the same page.

“We haven't had any practice time [on the trip],” Watson said. “Guys are just playing games, and we have things we need to work on.”

The team is expected to return home Wednesday afternoon. The players will have a light skate Thursday and a full practice Friday before hosting Kalamazoo on Saturday in just the second home game of the season.

Watson said the trip has had more positives than negatives. He said the team has looked good on the back-end with defensemen Kevin Tansey and Ryan Obuchowski leading the way.

“They've looked very solid. [Obuchowski] plays hard. [Tansey] is playing mistake-free hockey,” Watson said.

Up front, he said forwards Zach Nastasiuk, Mike Borkowski, and Christian Hilbrich have been impressive.

Hilbrich, who is 6-foot-7 and 216 pounds, leads the team with five points. Tansey and Nastasiuk are tied with Shane Berschbach with four points each. Rookie defenseman Parker Reno scored his first pro goal Saturday.

Veteran goaltender Pat Nagle (3-0-1) is off to a solid start with a 1.93 goals-against average — fourth best in the ECHL — and already has played the second most minutes in the league. Nagle also had a shutout in the home opener Oct. 21 against Quad City.

“He's been dynamite for us,” Watson said. “He's our rock back there. He's a true pro.”

The team also has lost forward Kyle Bonis and defenseman Patrick McCarron to call-ups to the American Hockey League. Rookie goalie Matej Machovsky, who is on the 21-day injured reserve list, is not on the trip. Defensemen Beau Schmitz and Brock Beukeboom and forward Colin Martin also are on IR.

“The guys are starting to gel and mesh,” Watson said. “Overall, I'm very happy.”

SUSPENSION: Walleye forward Connor Crisp was suspended two games by the ECHL for a cross-checking penalty in Saturday's game at Adirondack.

Crisp was called for high sticking in the incident in the second period, and also was called for roughing and continuing altercation for his dust-up with Thunder forward Eric Neiley.

The league issued the discipline to Crisp, who will miss Toledo’s games against Worcester and Kalamazoo. He also was fined an undisclosed amount.

Watson had no comment on the incident or suspension.

Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com419-724-6354, or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.

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