There are ways to slow down high-scoring offenses. For much of their first game against the Toledo Walleye, the Kalamazoo Wings did an excellent job of executing their game plan. Unfortunately, there was a ten minute stretch at the end of the first period where they didn’t and it cost them the game as the Walleye edged them out 4-3 win to take a 1-0 lead in the best of seven series.
A great way to slow down a team like the Walleye is to get the lead early. With a lead, Kalamazoo wouldn’t have to chase after offensive chances and risk falling out of their defensive alignment. The Wings checked off that item with an ugly goal by Blake Kessel at the 3:33 mark.
The scoring sequence started with a good shift by Wings Josh Pitt and Justin Taylor. It was an innocent shot from the boards from Taylor that ricocheted around in front of the Toledo net. Kalamazoo forward Tanner Sorenson jabbed at the puck, keeping Toledo goaltender Jake Paterson from being able to cover it up. Kessel was the first to see the puck sitting next to Paterson’s skate and the Kalamazoo defender poked it home for the first goal of the game.
Another way to keep a prolific offense off the scoreboard is to block shots and passing lanes. For the few minutes after the goal, Kalamazoo was able to blunt the Toledo attack. The Wings limited them to 3 shots on net through the first part of the period. By getting sticks and body parts on the puck, they slowed things down and frustrated the home team.
The main problem with playing that way is that a team ends up spending a lot of time in the defensive zone. If the defending team isn’t able to clear the puck, the offensive chances will keep piling up and a team like Toledo will take advantage.
The Walleye did just that. It was only a matter of time until they would get the puck on net. When they did, the goals followed. First it was Kyle Bonis putting the puck past Nick Riopel after what seemed like 100 whacks at the puck.
Almost three minutes later Toledo forward Evan Rankin displayed a little bit of skill in fending off defender Ben Wilson and backhanding a puck past Riopel.
Thirty-five seconds later one of the Spinks boys (it was Tylor) batted home a rebound to make it 3-1 and the Wings were in danger of being run off the ice.
A third way to beat a team that scores as much as Toledo does is to have a goaltender make key saves. It may be strange to say after allowing three goals in three minutes, but Riopel did just that. His biggest play of the game didn’t even go down as a save.
Down by two and looking a bit shell-shocked, the Wings just needed to get to intermission. Toledo had no intention of doing that. With a minute left the pressure was on again. The Walleye fired a puck at the net that went wide. As Riopel turned to look for it, the lively boards at the Huntington Events Center shot the puck between him and the post and through the crease. Toledo defenseman Nolan Zajac was wide open and looking at an out of position goaltender.
Somehow, Riopel was able to twist his body enough to poke the puck away from Zajac and keep the deficit at two. If Toledo scores there and makes it 4-1, the game is over. They didn’t and the Wings were able to make it to the break down only two.
Still they faced a daunting task. They would not only have to score three goals, they would also have to keep Toledo off the board for the rest of the game. To this point, Kalamazoo had tried to create chances by cycling the puck down low and generating shots from the point. For lack of a better way to phrase it, they were running a puck control offense.
By keeping the puck in the offensive zone, and trying to make sure they hit a Toledo player every time they had the puck along the boards, Kalamazoo was trying to wear down the quicker, shiftier Walleye players. It was a plan that would begin to work, unfortunately it wasn’t until after Toledo scored to extend the lead to 4-1.
Give Coach Bootland and his team credit, they didn’t deviate from their plan after going down three and it paid off. Whether it was Toledo relaxing a bit or getting worn down by the way Kalamazoo was playing, from that point on the Wings were the better team.
Cam Darcy pulled them within two with another relentless goal. After a flurry of shots that led to several rebounds Peterson couldn’t control, Darcy swept in and batted a puck into the back of the net. It was the former Crunch’s first career ECHL playoff goal and the Wings went into the second intermission within striking distance.
Five minutes into the third period Charlie Vasaturo would make things a little tense for for the 6,018 Walleye fans in attendance. The Wings were controlling play and using their cycle game to generate chances. Darcy brought the puck out from the corner and slid it to the Wings defenseman who fired a puck on net. Peterson never saw it until he was digging it out of the back of the net as he was screened by Kalamazoo forward Peter Schneider.
With a healthy portion of the game left, the Wings had crept within one goal and had all of the momentum on their side. Riopel, who hadn’t had much work since the first period, did have to make a nice stop on the other Spink (Tyson) to preserve the one-goal deficit, but a bad penalty by Blake Kessel would render the save pointless.
One of the keys for the WIng to win the series was to stay out of the penalty box. Which due to smart play (and a slight disregard for calling penalties by the refs) they managed to due until the last minute of the game.
Toledo forward Evan Rankin was able to alleviate some of the late Kalamazoo pressure by dumping the puck into the Wings zone. As he wrestled with Kalamazoo forward Josh Pitt by the benches, Blake Kessel skated by and gave him the gentlest of nudges with his stick. Rankin went down like he was shot. The refs arm went up and for all intents and purposes the game was over.
Even though Toledo took a questionable call to even things up, it was too late for Kalamazoo to close the gap and the final horn sounded with them on the wrong end of a 4-3 score. They did a lot of very good things in the game and showed why it won’t be a cakewalk for Toledo. Unfortunately, they had a very bad ten minute stretch and they just can’t afford that if they want to pull off the upset.
Three Stars of the Game:
3. Kalamazoo - Cam Darcy
2. Toledo - Kyle Bonis
1. Toledo Shane Berschbach
Kalamazoo’s best player was Cam Darcy, but their best line was Justin Taylor’s. From the beginning of the game they seem to trouble Toledo the most.
Tyler Biggs was the best Kalamazoo player to not register a point. He was a physical presence all game long and created a few turnovers with his hits along the boards.
Riopel played fairly well, the only goal that he might have wanted back was the fourth one where he had a clean view of Berschbach’s shot and couldn’t stop it.
AJ Jenks did end up playing for Toledo and mixed things up pretty well. He is a bit of an agitator (much like Josh Pitt was for Kalamazoo). Things were getting chippy at the end of the game, it’ll be interesting to see what Saturday’s game holds.
Next game: Saturday at 7:35 EST at the Huntington Center.