For the first time in nearly two months the Toledo Walleye are no longer the soul possessors of first place in the ECHL. After hitting their first major slump of the season, the Florida Everblades have taken advantage and tied Toledo for first place with 66 points apiece. The Walleye still hold onto the top spot in the Western Conference outright however, since the Everblades are in the Eastern Conference. Many Toledo fans have been rattled by the team’s performance lately, with feelings of dread setting in as they are reminded of last year’s early playoff exit. In response to those restless Walleye fans out there, I’ll take a page out of Aaron Roger’s book: R-E-L-A-X. Relax. Your Walleye are going to be ok!
Now, it would be foolish of me to not acknowledge and even agree (to some extent) with your concerns. The Walleye have been floundering as of late: only two games out of their last seven have resulted in victories. During those seven games Toledo gave up an average of 4.29 goals per game and allowed an average of 31.4 shots on goal against Paterson and Lerg. Also, out of those seven games we allowed 5 or more goals four times. At some point during four of those games Toledo trailed by at least three goals. Our opponents have been playing hard physical games, which has proven to be an effective way of containing the Walleye these past couple of years. It’s in games such as these where we really miss Nightingale, called up to the AHL Chicago Wolves, and Czarnowczan, out for the season with a torn ACL. Our lack of muscle to prevent physical play has proved to be a weak point, with skill players like A.J. Jenks having to throw their bodies around as a result. Alex Globke has tried to assert himself as a physical presence, but it’s hard to be physical when you’re scratched from the lineup. Jacob MacDonald’s absence due to his call up has also left a major hole in the d-core, which proves hard to fill despite Toledo’s recent signings and trade attempts. Lerg struggled in his first game back, showing the rust from Denmark, and Paterson has given up far too many juicy rebounds along with soft goals during the slump as well. But are we doomed to collapse? No. Don’t let these current shortcomings dim your outlook on the season, because plenty has gone right even during this slump.
So we have lost five games in regulation or overtime out of seven, but we have plenty of positives to take from these games. First of all, our offense has stayed hot in those games scoring an average of 4.14 goals per contest. In three of those games the Walleye managed to score at least 5 goals. Along with our offense, special teams have continued to shine bright during this dark spot. Our Power Play (PP) Unit has stayed lethal, with an efficiency of 29.0% while netting 9 PP goals. Alternatively, our Penalty Kill (PK) Unit has only surrendered 3 PP goals on 21 opportunities, equating to a PK percentage of 85.7%. Along with fantastic special teams play, the return of A.J. Jenks from IR has been a huge boost for the team. Jenks has scored 4 points in the four games he has played since his return, all while throwing some big hits in the process. Although I don’t like to see skill players throwing hits constantly, especially when they just return from injury, it’s good that someone is taking charge and standing up for his team. A.J. has been one of the best players on the ice, along with the Spinks, Hirschfeld, and Rankin. All of the names you’ve come to know continue to put points up for Toledo, as those five players are a part of the top seven scorers of the team. Denis’ resiliency has been impressive to me as well, along with Zajac, and the young defensemen continue to show signs of improvement even with their mistakes. So looking into the future, what gives me the confidence to say that we’ll come out of this slump better than where we started?
Almost all successful teams will hit slumps during the course of a season, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Walleye find themselves in one now. Remember the Pittsburgh Penguins last season? After firing their head coach and an assistant coach after a loss on December 11th, the Penguins went on to lose four more games before snapping their losing streak at five. In a ten game span the Penguins lost seven games, and look how their season turned out. Stanley Cup Champs. Now Pittsburgh has a lot more talent available to them than Toledo does, but that doesn’t take away from the parallel between the two teams. You simply can’t judge a team’s outlook based off a few consecutive games. A lot of Toledo’s talent has been called up to the AHL, especially on the defensive front. We talked about our lack of physical play and the absence of Nightingale and MacDonald earlier. It is unlikely that Nightingale will remain in the AHL for the rest of the year, and when he does return Jared will bring back that physical element we have been missing. Coach Watson hasn’t called off the search for an elite defenseman via trade either, we have a number of talented forwards that could be perfect trade bait. J.P. LaFontaine falls into that category along with Dane Walters. In other words, we will be getting the defensive help we need, just be patient in the process because defensemen are in high demand but low supply. The slump can prove to be beneficial in other ways, as our rookies and young talent finally have some proper adversity to overcome. Any team can come out of the gates raring to go when everything is going right, but it takes a well-coached and disciplined team to come out with a fire in them amidst a losing streak. Our slump is a great wake up call to a team that has gotten too comfortable with their approach, especially for our youth. Coach Watson, the Spinks, Denis, Zajac, and many other member of the team can grow thanks to these last seven games. Besides, I would much rather have this downturn in late January/early February then late March/early April, as there is plenty of time to make the necessary corrections. Finally, we are facing the right team Friday to get back to our winning ways. The Walleye will be taking on Brampton for the seventh time this season, and we have had great success against them. We are 5-1-0-0 against the Beast this year, scoring 4.83 goals per game while allowing 2.67 goals against. Brampton is also 5-4-0-1 in their last ten games, so they have been having issues as of late too. The Walleye know that they can play better than what they’ve shown, so a favorable matchup with a group of ticked off players is just the combination we need to see.
The best fans are not only those who are at every game cheering the loudest. Often good and wise fans are those who are most critical of a team’s performance, like a coach who nitpicks after a win. Given the performance of the Walleye lately, now is a time to be critical of our play, but not for the outlook of the entire season. Slumps are natural for any team, especially in the sport of hockey at the ECHL level. So don’t be quick to chalk us up to a first round elimination simply due to the last seven games. Coach Watson will prepare our players. Hirschfeld, Schmitz, Rankin, and Jenks will focus and support our rookies. And our rookies will come out with something to prove once again on Friday. After all, although tied, Toledo is still your first place ECHL franchise. And we still have unfinished business to attend to. Let’s Go Walleye.