Earning points at home is a priority in the early going for a Walleye team that has just six of its first 20 games at the friendly confines of the Huntington Center.
Toledo played just its second home game of the season on Saturday night before another capacity crowd and protected their ice with a 5-2 win over rival Kalamazoo. The Walleye fell behind 1-0 just seconds into the game before many of the 8,300 spectators at the downtown arena had settled into their seats.
But the Walleye reeled off four straight goals to build a three-goal cushion. Tyler Barnes found the equalizer just minutes after the Wings scored and A.J. Jenks gave Toledo a 2-1 lead with a power-play goal midway through the opening period.
Forward Christian Hilbrich then converted on a solo breakaway to give the Walleye a 3-1 edge 4:56 into the second period. Hilbrich skated in alone on Wings goalie Joel Martin and got a backhander off and it trickled past Martin for the two-goal cushion.
“Holy Toledo!,” said Hilbrich, who is in his first year with the Walleye and leads the team in scoring. “It is so fun playing in front of that many fans that are that passionate. It makes it that much more fun for the players. It's easy for a team to get up to play in front of all of those people. For us, we love coming home. We've only played two home games this year and those are our two best games. And that's a testament to the fans.”
Exactly three minutes later Jenks scored his second of the night to put the Walleye up 4-1 and the quick deficit was a distant memory.
“The bounce-back mentality is huge,” Walleye coach Dan Watson said. “There's no panic with the older group we have. There's a sense we'd come right back. We turned the page quick and the guys responded.”
Toledo forward Colin Martin, who just came off the injured reserve list and played in his first game in a Walleye uniform, scored with 11:23 remaining. Martin tipped a shot from the point by Ryan Obuchowski for a 5-2 advantage.
Toledo (5-2-1), which won its home opener on Oct. 21, returned from a four-game road trip (2-1-1) and skated away with two points.
“It's nice to be at home,” Watson said. “We have to make the most of it. We can't squander points here. The crowd [energizes] us. We want to make the most of it.”
Watson also said it is imperative to win games within the Central Division. Toledo plays division foe Kalamazoo just six times this season. The Walleye also moved into sole possession of first place in the Central Division with the win.
“These games are magnified,” Watson said. “These games are huge for us. And they are a rival. Those points are crucial.”
Kalamazoo scored just 19 seconds into the game as Lane Scheidl knocked home a rebound. Walleye goalie Pat Nagle lost sight of the puck after an initial shot by Danny Morynihan as it bounced along the goal line before Scheidl poked it in the net.
But Nagle (5-0-1) settled in after surrendering the early goal and finished with 33 saves. Nagle made back-to-back saves on Scheidl a minute apart late in the second period. Hilbrich said Nagle does not get down on himself.
“It was a fluky goal. We knew we would answer,” Hilbrich said.
Nagle then was sharp as the Wings had their third and fourth power plays of the game early in the third period as he made four saves to keep the two-goal cushion. He also was tested late in regulation as Kalamazoo had a five-minute power play.
“He's been a rock,” Watson said. “He's had great rebound control.”
Kalamazoo made it 4-2 on Tyler Biggs' power-play goal with 2:30 left in the middle stanza.
Walleye forward Austen Brassard finished with two assists.
Toledo killed off four of five power plays for the Wings.
“It was really good,” Watson said. “We were on the PK for almost nine straight minutes [in the third]. Our guys are determined when they are down a guy. It's a mentality. You can see how disciplined the guys are.”
At 6-foot-7 and 228 pounds, Hilbrich has shown a good finishing touch along with his size. He leads the Walleye in scoring with eight points after finishing with a goal and an assist.
Barnes, who was issued a game misconduct late in regulation for a slashing infraction, tied it at 1 with 13:33 left in the opening period when he skated around K-Zoo defenseman Mackenze Stewart and then sneaked his shot up over Martin's left shoulder in the corner of the net.
It was the second sellout of the season after the team had 20 capacity crowds last year. The game turned chippy late with pushing and shoving after the whistle. There also were two odd penalties called in the game.
The Walleye must refocus quickly as the team travels Sunday morning to Indianapolis for an afternoon game against the Indy Fuel at 3:05 p.m. Watson said Nagle may start depending on how he feels.
“We have to get our fluids and get some rest. It's a three-hour bus ride. But we're comfortable on the road. We have to play hard, smart, and simple,” Watson said.
The Walleye then have a home-and-home series against Wheeling next weekend. Toledo plays in West Virginia on Friday before the teams meet again in Toledo on Saturday.
FISH TALES: The ECHL entered into a contract with Marvel Comics this season to have the league's teams wear Super Hero themed jerseys. Watson had nothing but praise for the Iron Man themed jerseys that the Walleye players wore on Saturday.
“It's making national news,” he said. “For us, it's nothing but good publicity.”
ROSTER MOVES: The team traded D Brock Beukeboom to Greenville for future considerations on Saturday. Watson signed Beukeboom, who is the son of former NHL defenseman Jeff Beukeboom, in the offseason. But Beukeboom had not appeared in a game.
“It was a sheer numbers thing,” Watson said.
■ Rookie goaltender Matej Machovsky remains on the injured reserve and likely will be out one more week with a lower-body injury.