With the amount of overtime playoff hockey the Toledo Walleye have played in recent postseasons, it's a wonder that coach Dan Watson does not have a full head of gray hair.
Since the 2015 Kelly Cup playoffs, the Walleye have played in 13 overtime games. Toledo prevailed 4-3 in double overtime Friday against Indy in Game 1 of a Central Division semifinal series.
Toledo Walleye forward Christian Hilbrich scores a goal during Friday's ECHL first round playoff game against the Indy Fuel. The Walleye take a 1-0 series lead into Game 2 Sunday at the Huntington Center.
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“It's a game of will, grit, and determination,” Watson said.
The Walleye are no strangers to the intensity of overtime playoff hockey. Toledo played in nine in the 2015 playoffs and three last season.
Forward Tyler Barnes, who scored the game-winning goal 1:33 into the second overtime against the Fuel, staked Toledo to a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series. Game 2 is set for 5:15 p.m. Sunday at the Huntington Center.
“It's incredible. It's a great feeling,” Barnes said. “We have such great support here. I'm glad we could get a win for them.”
Barnes is no stranger to postseason heroics. The native of Burnsville, Minn. was a rookie with Toledo in 2015 when he scored the game-winning goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against South Carolina. Barnes scored 4:30 into overtime at the Huntington Center to force a decisive Game 7 against the Stingrays. Barnes, who was named the ECHL rookie of the year that season, finished off a solo breakaway to keep the Walleye’s season alive and sent a packed house into delirium.
VIDEO: Walleye ready for Game 2
In the game against Indy, a crowd of 7,023 at the downtown arena grew tense and eerily quiet at times during the do-or-die moments of overtime. It was the third consecutive game this season the Walleye and the Fuel played that went to OT.
Toledo forward Christian Hilbrich, who scored two goals in his pro hockey playoff debut, said the atmosphere was intense.
“It's so much fun,” Toledo's 6-foot-7 center said. “I was really fired up. I was actually happy it went into overtime. Those are the types of games that make hockey what it is. Playoff hockey is such a different animal. There's a lot more physicality. Guys bring their best.”
Defenseman Simon Denis set up the game winner with a quick outlet pass up to Kyle Bonis that created a 3-on-2 rush. Barnes made no mistake as he one-timed it by Indy rookie goalie Etienne Marcoux, who finished with 41 saves.
“As the game goes on you have the highs and lows,” Barnes said. “It was crazy in overtime and the second overtime. Everyone was pretty drained at that point. But the crowd got going with some chants and you could feel the energy in the building. It revived us. It gave us the extra step to push through.”
Hilbrich, who had 46 points in 68 games during the regular season with 23 goals and 23 assists, gave his team leads of 1-0 in the first period and 2-1 in the second.
“It's huge to be able to step up in big moments,” Hilbrich said. “That's where guys earn their stripes and they're able to showcase what they can do. We have a great team and we have a lot of pieces where different guys can step up on different nights. And in the playoffs, everyone has to be consistent and contribute.”
The Walleye, who led by two goals early in the third, recovered from a late letdown in regulation to get the early momentum in the series.
“We were able to catch a break and end it,” Watson said. “One break. That's all it takes.”
The Walleye also have been on the other end. Toledo is 6-7 in overtime playoff games since 2015, when Watson was an assistant coach under Derek Lalonde. In 2015, Toledo won the North Division final series to rival Fort Wayne 4-3, but all the games the Walleye lost to the Komets were in overtime.
Overtime against Indy looked doubtful when Bonis, who finished with a goal and two assists, scored 2:58 into the third to give Toledo a 3-1 lead. But the top-seeded Walleye, who went 8-1-0 against the Fuel during the regular season, squandered the cushion and Indy tied it on goals by Josh Shalla and Brandon Ansiemini.
Watson said he stresses to his team about “not ever taking a stride off.”
“As soon as you relax … they will capitalize,” Watson said. “I thought we came out flying. But they scored that [tying] goal and got momentum … and they rode with that the rest of the game. It's a tough Indy team. We knew it would be a tougher series than what it looked like on paper.”
He said the puck was in Toledo's end for too long.
“We have to correct that, for sure,” Watson said.
But Watson said he was pleased with the performance of goaltender Pat Nagle, who finished with 43 saves on 46 shots. He also said the team's penalty kill unit performed well. The Fuel, which had the top power play in the ECHL during the regular season, went 0 of 4 with the man advantage.
“When you get good goalie performances like that, you don't want to waste them. Your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer, and [Nagle] was again,” he said. “We had a massive penalty kill at the end of the game and got us into overtime. And we had another one later in overtime. We need the PK to be big in this series. I thought our killers did a great job.”
Hilbrich said his team, which has home-ice advantage through the first three rounds, must once again protect home ice in Game 2.
“Winning at home is huge,” he said. “We worked all season for this. It's incredible the fan support we have here. So it's great to put on a great show for them.”
RULING: ECHL officials say they are reviewing the actions of Toledo's Connor Crisp and Indy's Garrett Clarke in the first period of the opener.
Clarke was called for charging (game misconduct) and Crisp was penalized for fighting (match penalty) after a dust-up. Crisp went to defend Hilbrich after Clarke buried an unsuspecting Hilbrich into the boards with a big hit. Crisp threw down his gloves and tackled Clarke. He then punched Clarke after things appeared to be settling down as Clarke attempted to rise to his feet. Both players were ejected. Hilbrich suffered a laceration to his forehead.
Possible suspensions are expected to be announced Sunday.
ROSTER MOVES: Forward Mike Borkowski was recalled to Grand Rapids of the AHL. Defenseman Kevin Lohan was activated from reserve. Borkowski had the fourth most points for Toledo during the regular season with 48 (19 goals, 29 assists). Lohan had three assists in six games after signing with Toledo out of Boston College late in the regular season.
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