Sky-high playoff aspirations for the Toledo Walleye spiraled into another disappointing postseason exit for a team that again could not extend regular-season success into postseason production.
The Walleye, who finished first in their conference for the fourth straight regular season, were eliminated in the second round by rival Fort Wayne.
Toledo Walleye forward Kyle Bonis didn't have a point in six games as the team lost its playoff series to Fort Wayne.
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Second-year coach Dan Watson had retooled his roster with greater size to be able to withstand the physicality of the Kelly Cup playoffs, while also keeping a passionate core of loyal and skilled veterans.
Toledo earned home-ice advantage through the first three rounds by finishing with the top record in the Western Conference (50-17-5). Veteran goalie Pat Nagle, who came over from Fort Wayne, had a career year in the regular season (37-6-4) as he set a Toledo ECHL record for wins.
So why did the Walleye see a 2-1 series lead over the Komets in the Central Division finals evaporate in to a 4-2 series loss?
The bottom line is that the Walleye simply did not score enough. Toledo was outscored 11-4 by the Komets in the final three games of the series (all losses) and 20-13 overall.
Some other troubling themes developed in the series. The Walleye's fortunes were doomed by the team’s inability to:
■ Generate emotion and will within games and from game to game.
■ Control momentum swings.
■ Protect home ice (1-2 at the Huntington Center).
■ Win 50/50 battles, sustain pressure, and develop flow.
■ Clear out traffic in front of Nagle.
■ Have key players produce.
■ Convert on quality chances with far too many open shots sent high and wide.
■ Maintain their psychological edge over the Komets
■ Replace the loss of defenseman Simon Denis due to an illegal hit in Game 4.
After Toledo scored 3.36 goals per game in the regular-season, the team averaged just 2.70 in the playoffs, a number that dropped to 2.17 goals per game against Fort Wayne.
Defensively, Toledo ranked second in the league in scoring defense (2.36 goals allowed per game) during the ECHL regular season. In the postseason, the Walleye gave up 2.90 per contest — including 3.33 per game to the Komets.
The Walleye were never able to get enough traffic in front of Fort Wayne goalie Michael Houser, who ended up being the difference in the series. The goal was to take away Houser's sight line and to simply get shots on him, but gritty and greasy goals were hard to come by with few rebounds generated.
“We didn't do a good enough job getting in front of [Houser],” Watson said. “If you give a good goaltender an opportunity to see a puck, he's going to make [saves]. We needed to score goals in those dirty areas, but he stood tall.”
The Walleye looked inexplicably flat in Game 1, losing 5-3 at the Huntington Center where they traditionally dominate (especially Fort Wayne) and generating a season-low 15 shots on goal. Toledo had eight games off after sweeping Indy in the first round, and the long layoff may have played a factor. But the lack of energy before a sellout crowd (8,000) set the tone for the series.
Toledo rebounded with a 2-1 home win in Game 2 and followed with a 4-3 win in Game 3 on the road. The Walleye seized a 2-1 lead in the series and appeared to be in good shape with home-ice advantage reestablished.
Houser then took over with 41 saves during a 3-1 win at Memorial Coliseum. The Walleye played their best game of the postseason, outshooting the Komets 42-25, only to see Fort Wayne tie the series.
In a quick turn of events late in the second period, Denis was illegally cross-checked from behind by Dan Maggio as the Walleye were on an odd-man rush. Denis crumpled to the ice and lay motionless for a couple of minutes. Toledo's quarterback on the power play and top D-man, Denis was lost for the rest of the series. Maggio, who added insult to injury by scoring twice in the pivotal game, was suspended for one game.
Instead of grabbing a stranglehold, the Walleye could never duplicate that successful game plan and the Komets rolled with that momentum and confidence into the Huntington Center for Game 5. They scored two goals over the first 6:31 of the game — just 2:13 apart — to stun a pumped-up crowd of 7,949. Houser shined again (35 saves) as Fort Wayne seized a 3-2 lead, stealing a second game in Toledo.
The Komets then ended it with a 4-2 win in Game 6 at Memorial Coliseum on Tuesday. Toledo took a 2-1 lead in the first period but couldn't hang on to the momentum, giving up the tying goal just 1:27 later.
The team's top three scorers in the regular season — veterans Tyler Barnes, Kyle Bonis, and Shane Berschbach — struggled in the series, accounting for just five points combined. Remarkably all five were generated by tactician Berschbach. Bonis was held scoreless in six games, while Barnes also did not score and actually was scratched in Games 4 and 6.
Bonis, who has scored some of the biggest goals in franchise history including the Game 7 winner against Wheeling in the 2015 playoffs, was very emotional after the team was eliminated. Barnes was the ECHL rookie of the year in 2015, and Berschbach is the franchise's all-time scoring leader. The veteran leaders are the first to point the finger at themselves and accept responsibility.
The Walleye also had boasted the upper hand on the Komets since Fort Wayne joined the ECHL in 2012-13. Toledo ousted the Komets from the playoffs twice (4-1 last season and 4-3 in 2015). But Fort Wayne went 6-2-0 against Toledo in the regular season and 4-2 in the playoffs.
“It’s a relief more than anything,” Komets captain Shawn Szydlowski told the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. “They’ve kind of been our Kryptonite.”
Perhaps Fort Wayne was just the better team and finally had the Walleye's number.
“They have a lot of good forwards, good D, and a good goalie,” Nagle said. “At the end of the day they were better than us at every position. That's a pill we have to swallow.”
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