On Friday the chase for the Kelly Cup gets started for the Kalamazoo Wings. Standing in their way in the first round will be the Toledo Walleye. The series will pit the best team over the entire season (Toledo) versus one of the hottest teams in the league (Kalamazoo). Toledo captured the Brabham Cup with 106 points. The K-Wings turned a dismal season around by going 27-13-1 since January 1.
What are the K-Wings facing in their series? Only the top-scoring team in the league (302 goals scored), the best defensive team (191 goals allowed), the team with the best power play (25.1%) and the best penalty kill (86.%). For a Kalamazoo team that is middling at best in all of those categories it’s going to be a heck of an uphill climb to come out on top.
To get to know the K-Wings’ opponent a little bit better, Raw Charge asked Mark Monroe, who covers the Walleye for the Toledo Blade, to answer a few questions about the team:
Raw Charge: For the folks tuning in for the first time, which Toledo players should they keep an eye on?
Mark Monroe: Forwards Tyson Spink (ECHL rookie of the year) and twin brother Tylor Spink. Both are dynamic play makers and can finish. Forward Shane Berschbach [former Kalamazoo Wing!], who became the franchise's all time leading scorer (single season and career) this year, is a great distributor of the puck.
Veterans Evan Rankin [former Syracuse Crunch!], Kyle Bonis, Dane Walters [who finished the season with a 5-goal games against Indy] up front. Simon Denis, Nolan Zajac on the back end.
Goaltender Jake Paterson, who is in his second year, led the league with 34 wins, tied for the league lead with seven shutouts, and finished fourth with a 2.28 goals-against average. Paterson (34-13-2), who was was selected in the third round of the NHL draft by Detroit in 2012, played in 49 of the team's 72 games.
RC: Tylor Spink - Will the Grand Rapids release him back to the Walleye in time for the playoffs? (it's cool with us if they don't)
MM: Both Spink brothers will be with Toledo throughout the playoffs. [damn]
RC: Looking at the season stats, the Walleye were pretty good. First in Goals For, First in Goals Against, First in Power Play Percentage, First in Penalty Kill Percentage, winners of the Brabham Cup for most points in the league. Is there anything Kalamazoo and Tampa fans can cling to in regards to a possible first round upset?
MM: The Walleye became the first team in the 29-year history of the ECHL to lead the league in four of the most important categories. Toledo finished first in the ECHL in both goals scored (302) and goals allowed (191) as well as power play percentage (25.1) and penalty kill percentage (86.8).
However, Toledo also was the top seed last year and lost to No. 8 seed Reading in the first round. At times Toledo has had trouble with teams that clog up the middle and play a physical brand [of hockey].
Running into a hot goalie can also be the difference and K-Zoo has two in Nick Riopel and vet Joel Martin that could get hot.
RC: Speaking of the upset by Reading last year, is there any pressure on the returning players to keep that from happening again?
MM: Expectations are very high and pressure to make a deep run could have the Walleye squeezing their sticks if the series goes past five or six games. The team also has a large number rookies, who are experiencing the pressure of the playoffs for the first time.
So, there is a glimmer of hope for the K-Wings. As Mark points out, the Walleye are a young team. No matter how well the regular season goes, the playoffs are an entirely different beast. Perhaps the only category Kalamazoo leads in is experience. They will have to use that to their advantage.
What does Kalamazoo have to do win the series?
First, they need Riopel and Martin to step up and be the best players on the ice. In all likelihood, coach Nick Bootland is going to give both netminders games in the series. He’s rotated them all season long and with two sets of back-to-back games to start the round, it makes sense to keep them fresh. The two goalies might catch a small break as it does look like AJ Jenks (46 points in 46 games) may miss the first few games due to an injury.
Second, keep their scoring balanced. Since putting Cam Darcy, Lane Scheidl and Peter Schneider together, that line has been tremendous. Darcy has 25 points in 20 games, Scheidl has 28 goals, and Schneider ended the season on a 14-game points streak. Not too shabby.
With that line humming along it should free up some space for leading scorer Justin Taylor and his linemates Josh Pitt and Tyler Sorenson to create a little havoc as well. While the K-Wings don’t have the firepower the Walleye can boast, they do have enough weapons to hang with them in a seven games series.
They also have to stay out of the penalty box. There is too much offensive firepower on the Toledo side to give them consistently give them a man advantage. So they have to be physical, but disciplined. That’s a fine line for a team to have to toe.
Who are the K-Wings missing that could help them?
Dajon Mingo broke his foot in the series against Florida and will miss the entire playoffs. Anthony Camara is still on loan to the St. John’s IceCaps in the AHL and is a big, physical presence that would come in handy against the Walleye. He was listed on the playoff roster so there is some hope, especially if the IceCaps cough up their playoff spot that he could return.
Another player listed on the roster who is more likely to suit up is Blake Kessel. The offensive-minded defender missed the last five games of the regular season as he dealt with an injury. The K-Wings could really use his puck-moving skills against the Walleye forecheck.
They could also use the services of Tyler Biggs, a big (6’2”, 223lbs.) forward who missed the end of the season as well. The former Maple Leafs draft pick put up 13 goals on the season including 4 on the power play. He’s the type of imposing player Brian Burke famously described as “hostile and truculent” after drafting him, one that could give Toledo trouble.
Both Biggs and Kessel were practicing in regular jerseys this week so they are probably for game one.
The K-Wings can be buoyed by the knowledge that after January first they were 3-2 and against the Walleye including a victory at the Huntington Events Center where Toledo only lost 7 games in regulation all year.
This series should be closer than the numbers suggest. Still, Toledo has enough offense to prevent the upset. Toledo wins in 6 games.
Thank you to Mark Monroe for answering our questions. Follow him on Twitter @MonroeBlade and his coverage of the Walleye at the Toledo Blade.