The Toledo Walleye clearly seem to have the upper-hand against their first-round playoff opponent, the Indy Fuel.
But looks can be deceiving.
Top-seeded Toledo (50-17-5) hosts fourth-seeded Indy (36-30-6) in Game 1 of a best-of-7 Central Division semifinal series at 7:35 p.m. Friday at the Huntington Center.
Toledo Walleye forward Shane Berschbach, center, celebrates a goal against the Fort Wayne Komets Friday, April 6, 2018. The Walleye open the ECHL playoffs Friday the Huntington Center against the Indy Fuel.
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The Walleye posted an 8-1-0 record against the Fuel this season and are 23-2-1 all-time vs. Indy. Toledo outscored Indy 36-26 in the season series. The Walleye won the division and Western Conference titles, while the Fuel got in on the final day of the regular season.
However, five of the games this season were decided by just one goal and the last two games went to overtime. The last time the Fuel visited the Huntington Center, they earned a 7-4 win March 11.
“It's going to be a battle,” Walleye coach Dan Watson said. “They are not an easy team. They are a big physical team. It's a tough test.”
The teams also were dead-even in overall offensive production. Toledo and Indy averaged 3.36 goals per game, tied for the eighth most in the ECHL.
Toledo forward Tyler Barnes, who finished with a team-high 53 points, said the Fuel are dangerous.
“They have a really potent offense,” said Barnes, who had 20 goals and 33 assists. “Anything can happen in playoff hockey. It's a different brand of hockey. You can't take any team lightly.”
Indy particularly was effective on the power play, leading the league in power-play percentage (22.8).
Barnes, who tallied five goals and four assists against the Fuel, said the Walleye must stay disciplined. Toledo counters with the second-best penalty kill unit in the ECHL.
“It's do or die,” Barnes said. “You're fighting to keep playing with a group of guys. When you have a special group like we have, you're willing to do whatever it takes to keep it going and make it something special.”
Walleye fans go wild after Christian Hilbrich scored a goal against the Indy Fuel March 11, 2018 at the Huntington Center. The Walleye and the Fuel square off in an ECHL playoff series beginning Friday in Toledo.
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Veteran goalie Pat Nagle, who led the league with 37 wins and tied for the second most victories in a single season in ECHL history, said Indy played well down the stretch to get into the playoffs. Indy went 9-2-3 in its final 14 games.
“They are one of the tougher teams we've faced,” Nagle said. “They are big up front and have a very good power play. They are very dangerous offensively. Obviously, I'll have to keep the puck out of the net and let our guys put it in their net. “
Forward Kyle Bonis, who scored a team-high 27 goals and led the way for the Walleye against Indy with 11 points, including four goals, said Toledo must find a way to slow the Fuel.
“They can score. They have great offense and they have a great power play,” Bonis said. “But we have a good penalty kill and good structure defensively. We will take care of our own end because they have a lot of firepower. There are no easy nights in the playoff. The intensity is ratcheted up.”
Walleye forward Shane Berschbach, who had 10 points, including two goals, against the Fuel, said Indy had a good second half.
“They made a push at the end, and that shows a lot about them,” Berschbach said. “We know they can score a lot of goals. We just have to play well defensively.”
The opening-round series will follow a 2-3-2 format with Game 2 set for Sunday at the Huntington Center before it shifts for three straight next week in Indianapolis. First to four wins.
“I like the fact that the stats get wiped clean,” Watson said. “It was a tough series. I know we got the better end of it. But it could have easily been 5-4 or 4-5 with the way they played us, especially late in the season.”
That's not to say Toledo lacks confidence. The Walleye earned a spot in the playoffs for the fourth straight season with a fourth consecutive division title, while Indy reaches the postseason for the first time in its four-year existence.
Toledo defenseman Simon Denis, who produced 35 regular-season points, said the Walleye have good veteran leadership and quality depth.
“You can pull anyone out of this lineup and have just as high of a quality player coming into the lineup,” Denis said. “This roster knows how to win and can lead Toledo to a championship. We just have to go out and execute the game plan.”
Former Walleye forward Josh Shalla led the Fuel with 28 goals while Michael Neal was tops on the team with 52 points, including 20 goals.
“We need to make sure we have the puck more than they do,” Watson said. “We need to wear them down with that puck possession. They get pucks to the net and they can move.”
Toledo won at least 50 games for the third time in four seasons. But the Walleye have yet to reach the Kelly Cup final. Watson said his team last season lacked defensive depth and quality production from its bottom forwards. Forwards Mike Borkowski, Christian Hilbrich, and Austen Brassard are difference makers up front. Forwards A.J. Jenks, Connor Crisp, Brassard, and defenseman Kevin Tansey provide a physical punch.
“Our so called third line can provide secondary offense but also provide a physical presence and create a lot of energy,” Watson said. “Our depth on the back end can match up with anybody.”
Watson, who has a 106-47-12 regular-season record with a 9-8 mark in the playoffs, said his team must eliminate the Fuel’s transition game and win special-teams battles.
“hey will make us pay if we take penalties,” he said.
Overall, Toledo allowed the second fewest goals in the ECHL at 2.36 per game. Indy gave up 3.44 goals per game, which ranked 21st out of 27 teams.
Nagle (37-6-4), who came over from rival Fort Wayne, had a career year. He set a Toledo ECHL record for wins in a season. He also finished sixth in the league in goals-against average (2.23) and fifth in save percentage (.924).
However, Nagle logged the second most minutes in the league. Nagle, who was named runner-up for ECHL goalie of the year honors Thursday, played 2,907 minutes and appeared in 50 of 72 games. Nagle is the clear-cut No. 1 and likely will start every game. Nagle, who started the final eight games of the regular season, brushes off concerns about fatigue.
“At this time of year, it's more mental,” Nagle said. “You're just excited to be playing games that really matter. We were fortunate to clinch early, so we weren't fighting to the dying days. That can wear you out. We were able to have a couple of weeks to lay low a little bit. Everyone will be ready to go.”
Indy counters with rookie goalie Etienne Marcoux, who went 22-12-2 with a 2.94 GAA. Marcoux was 0-3-1 with a 3.77 GAA against the Walleye.
Denis said it is imperative for his team to get off to a quick start. Toledo scored the first goal in 42 of 72 regular-season games. The Walleye went 36-3-3 when striking first. The Fuel were 24-10-0 when scoring first.
“Getting the early lead is huge and playing off the crowd,” Denis said.
Berschbach, the Walleye's all-time leader in points (264), has been a key part of teams that reached the conference final last season and in 2015.
“Being here in Toledo makes playoff hockey pretty special with the fan support we get,” Berschbach said. “The city has been waiting for a Cup for a long time and it's exciting to try to be a part of that. This is why we came back.”
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