With the chance to return to Toledo tied at two games a piece in their best of seven series, the Kalamazoo Wings withstood a late rally by the Walleye to win 8-5 on home ice. For the second night in a row, the K- Wings sealed the game with an empty net goal that brought hats flying onto the ice from the hometown fans. Tuesday night it was Peter Schneider with the hattrick, on Wednesday it was Josh Pitt delighting the crowd with a trio of goals.
Despite the barrage of goals by both sides, a strong argument could be made that the number one star of the night for Kalamazoo was Nick Riopel. Despite giving up five goals on thirty-six shots, the Quebec native stopped several point blank chances from the Walleye, including several without his stick.
Toledo has terrorized the Kalamazoo netminders all series long with quick cross-ice passes to open players that have led to quality chances. For the most part Wednesday night, Riopel was able to stop those chances. Without his play, especially in the second period, there could have been a much different outcome in the game.
There was tension in the air for most of the night. Kalamazoo was determined to play the same type of tight-checking, physical game that had frustrated the road team for much of Tuesday. The Walleye, for their part, didn’t want to get pushed around for the second night in a row. After the whistles the action was almost as entertaining as it was during the flow of play. Both teams were willing to push each other, throw the occasional shot at the back of their opponent’s head and, in the case of Toledo’s Beau Schmitz, take a run at Peter Schneider well after the whistle had blown on an offsides (there was no penalty on the play).
Schmitz would be in the penalty box for the first goal of the game. He was feeling shame for slashing Cam Darcy’s stick when Josh Pitt jumped on a loose puck in front of the net and put it past Toledo netminder Jake Paterson. Lane Scheidl picked up the primary assist as he was tripped (no call) crossing through the center of the offensive zone. Despite being taken off his feet, he was able to get the puck to Pitt and the forward shoveled it past Peterson for his first goal of the playoffs.
Kalamazoo would score again within the next two minutes. Brian Hart, who had the game winner for the K-Wings on Tuesday, was battling Dane Walters in front of the net, freed himself long enough to redirect a point shot from Blake Kessel to extend the Kalamazoo lead to 2-0.
The game was a lot closer than the scoreboard indicated eight minutes into the game. Unlike the night before, Toledo was generating their fair share of chances early in the first period. Riopel had to make a dazzling glove save on redhot Kyle Bonis prior to Pitt’s goal.
Following the Hart goal, Toledo picked up their pressure. Justin Taylor picked up a slashing call well behind the play. The K-Wings alternate captain argued in vein with the refs but failed to change their minds. Sixteen seconds later, Tyson Spink converted one of those deadly cross ice passes from Evan Rankin and the Walleye were within one.
Giving up the goal seemed to invigorate Kalamazoo. Three minutes later, Peter Schneider harassed Toledo defender Matt Caito and forced him to turn the puck over. Cam Darcy gathered in the loose puck and slid it between Paterson and the post to build the lead back to two goals.
Sixteen seconds later, Scott Henegar ended Peterson’s night by blowing a slap shot by him to bump the lead to 4-1. The Toledo goaltender, who was probably a bit exhausted after facing more than 50 shots the night before, was pulled after giving up four goals on just 11 shots on Wednesday.
The K-Wings kept the pressure up but Jeff Lerg, making his playoff debut, made several key stops to keep Toledo within spitting distance of the K-Wings. Toledo played much better in the second period, outshooting Kalamazoo 16-6, but saw their deficit grow due to goals by Peter Schneider, his fifth of the series, and Eric Kattelus. The goals were sandwiched around an Alex Globke goal for Toledo.
Despite being down 6-2 heading into the third, the Walleye gained a bit of momentum by stopping a lengthy Kalamazoo five on three power play. Shortly after the big stop, Kyle Bonis put the Walleye on the board with a power play goal. He made a nice play as Riopel stopped the initial shot but could not find the rebound which had popped straight up into the air. Bonis waited for it to go below the crossbar before batting it into the back of the net. The ice was tilting in favor of Toledo and Riopel had to make several big stops to stem the tide of play for the time being.
Kalamazoo seemed content to sit on their lead and backed off their pressure a bit. Couple with a string of bad penalties they were playing with fire. It was a bad tripping penalty by Henagar that would lead to another goal for Toledo. Tylor Spink snuck in on the right side and drove to the net. Riopel, who looked like he expected the rookie to pass the puck, cheated just enough off the post that Spink was able to slip the puck by him on the short side.
Toledo, who had seemed exhausted at the end of the second period, was suddenly flying up and down the ice. They were playing with confidence, and a skilled team with confidence is dangerous. On the other hand, the Kalamazoo squad that had played so well over the two nights were now the ones skating with their heads down just hoping the game would end.
Their lead would be trimmed to just one with nine minutes to go. Toledo’s Landon Oslanski flung a harmless looking shot from just inside the blueline. Somehow it evaded the traffic in front and Riopel’s pads to find the back of the net. The danger of blowing a 6-2 lead in the third period was looming large for the K-Wings.
An effective forecheck by Cam Darcy would give the K-Wings some breathing room. The big forward knocked down a clearing pass and got the puck to Tanner Sorenson who tried to fire the puck through three players as he would up for a slapshot between the circles. The puck ricocheted over to Pitt who found it in his skates and managed to poke it past Lerg for a huge insurance goal.
Toledo pulled Lerg with 1:40 left to play but failed to get the puck deep in the Kalamazoo end. Pitt got control of the puck at center ice and was able to fling it down the ice into the empty net to seal the victory.
The series returns to Toledo for Game 5 on Friday Night.
Observations: Including the regular season, Peter Schneider has registered a point in 18 straight games...Darcy’s six assists in the playoffs ties him with Shane Berschbach and Evan Rankin for the league lead...Eric Kattelus’ five points leads all defenders in the playoffs.