With nine games remaining in the regular season the Walleye have two goals: clinch home ice throughout the playoffs, and earn their first Kelly Cup. Both of which are much easier said than done. Colorado will be our fiercest opposition for home ice as they are tied with Toledo for first in the league. Each team has 95 points, but the Walleye have two more games left on their schedule, so the ball is in Toledo’s court for now. The Florida Everblades and Allen Americans are also within striking distance of first place. These teams will surely treat us to an exciting conclusion of the regular season! Hopefully Toledo will come away with their second Brabham Cup, as we have already begun preparations for the Kelly Cup Playoffs. As we get set for the 2017 postseason, let’s look back at previous playoff appearances and how those will help Toledo going forward.
The Walleye made their Kelly Cup Playoff debut after their inaugural 2009-10 season and faced off against the Charlotte Checkers in the first round. During their first season Toledo finished with a record of 35-30-2-5 and entered the playoffs as the eighth seed. Toledo managed to get a win in the series, but was eventually eliminated by the one seed Checkers after dropping the series 1-3. The Walleye’s next appearance in the Kelly Cup Playoffs came in 2013, when they entered as the seventh seed and engaged in-state rivals Cincinnati Cyclones in the first round. Once again Toledo would fail to get out of the first round again though, being knocked out by the second seed with the same result as 2010: a 1-3 series elimination. Walleye stars Kyle Rogers and Cody Lampl were on this Walleye team in 2013, and remained on board to help lead Toledo to their most successful postseason in 2015. After winning their first Brabham Cup in franchise history Toledo earned the first seed in the North Division and home ice throughout the playoffs with a regular season record of 50-15-5-2. The Walleye got their first and second series wins during the 2015 playoffs, defeating Wheeling and Fort Wayne 4-3 in the first and second rounds respectively. Unfortunately, the Walleye were stopped by the South Carolina Stingrays in the Eastern Conference Finals after a thrilling triple overtime 1-0 loss in Game 7 at the Huntington Center. Personally, I don’t think I’m ever going to forget how fantastic that game was, even with the loss. The following season marked the first time the Walleye made the playoffs in back to back seasons, and the team and fans entered expecting another deep run. Seeded first in the East, Toledo took on the eighth seeded Reading Royals, and were stunned. The Walleye lost in seven games, dropping Game 7 in Toledo 4-1 in front of a shocked fan base. After a long and painful offseason, Toledo came back stronger than ever to redeem themselves. Now we are caught up to the present, as your Walleye have clinched their third consecutive playoff appearance.
Out of six playoff series the Walleye emerged victorious in only two of them, and have an overall playoff record of 13-20. Although these aren’t the best statistics, the franchise and fan base have learned a lot from these past playoff tilts. For instance: the coaching staff and fan base have a better understanding of just how hard it is to win in the postseason. Now, that’s not to say that Toledo walked into each previous playoff run expecting the wins to come easily, but every young franchise must go through that stage of learning how a postseason truly differs from the regular season. The intensity and strategy vary drastically, and the entire team must be prepared for those differences. Our previous losses, and wins for that matter, have better prepared this year’s Walleye team to make a deep run into the postseason. Multiple players and coaches on the team have playoff experience now, when in previous appearances many members hadn’t made it out of the regular season. In a league as fluid as the ECHL continued success is extremely difficult, especially around playoff time when call ups can gut a roster or loans can bolster an opponent’s. Neither of these scenarios can be an excuse for elimination though, especially for this year’s squad.
So how will Coach Watson prepare our boys for the Kelly Cup Playoffs? Watty may be in his first season as Head Coach, but he has consistently shown the knowledge and experience gathered during his 17-year playing and coaching career. Throughout the year’s roster challenges, Coach Watson has continued to give his players the best opportunity for success. The veterans have helped our rookies develop into talented scorers and defensive units, while the rookies have rejuvenated some of the old guard as well. The architect named Watson has constructed a lethal team, and he has the playoff experience to use them effectively in the coming weeks. Veterans like Berschbach, Hirschfeld, and Rankin have flourished alongside their rookie counterparts like Tylor and Tyson Spink. In the defensive zone, Schmitz and Hill have helped Coach Delmore mold Denis and Zajac into top tier blue liners. Santos and Sandlak have been grinders all year long, and their hard work doesn’t go unnoticed by teammates and fans alike. Heeter and Paterson will most likely be the goaltending duo questing for the Cup, and at this point they give us the best chance to win. Heeter’s play with Grand Rapids this year has been fantastic, with 10 wins in 12 appearances, and Paterson’s body of work speaks for itself. Both netminders are ready to take on the playoffs. At this point, the Walleye more closely resemble a machine than a team, everyone knows their task and does it well. In other words, there is a tremendous amount of trust among the Walleye that whoever is on the ice will get the job done, which will prove invaluable in the playoffs. When a team is as tight knit and trusting as the Walleye are, they play with a ferocity and determination that can take them deep into the playoffs. They say you need luck when you enter the playoffs, but you also need to make your own luck when the going gets tough. Once we get through these last nine games, it’s time to set forth for our real goal.
Earning the Kelly Cup will not be easy, as this Western Conference is stacked with fantastic teams ranging from Fort Wayne to Allen to Colorado. You can’t underestimate Quad City or Kalamazoo either, any team can advance when the playoffs roll around. In our first go around in the West, we will have to work to make the finals. The East is no pushover as well. Whoever makes it out of their conference will have earned their spot in the Kelly Cup Finals, and will give the Western representative a worthy challenge. The Walleye’s best shot at a Kelly Cup may be this year, we have the talent and the staff to make a deep run. After this year it may be too late, as we may see a few retirement announcements in the offseason. So let’s make the most of this opportunity T-Town, and get ready to battle for our first Kelly Cup! See you all on April 14th, where I expect to see a roaring Huntington Center!
All pictures are my own.