In boxing, it’s often said that styles make fights. Two fighters who like to stand in front of each other and just throw punches is going to be way more exciting than two defensive counter-punchers ducking and weaving all night. In hockey, the same can be true. For fifty-nine minutes and thirty seconds of Game Five, the Kalamazoo Wings evenly matched their physical style of play against the transition style of the Toledo Walleye. Unfortunately AJ Jenks found a little daylight with twenty-three seconds left to propel the Walleye to a 3-2 victory.
Kalamazoo established their style early. They were focused on getting the puck out of their defensive zone as quickly as possible. As soon as the puck hit their stick they were happy to bang it off the glass and out or slide it up the middle of the ice, if one of their players was on the other hand, good. If they iced the puck, so what. They did not want to get caught turning the puck over and allowing the Walleye to cycle the puck around and find open spaces.
When Kalamazoo did possess the puck across the centerline, they dumped it in and sent in a strong forecheck in hopes that they could cause turnovers. It was a solid game plan as Toledo has had troubles getting the puck out of their zone when pressured.
For their part the Walleye wanted to use quick passes to move the puck from side to side and then hit a forward moving through the neutral zone with speed to carry the puck in and take advantage of their ability to move the puck around down low.
The beauty of the two contrasting styles was that, if one of the teams made a mistake, it played to the strength of the other team. Just a like a boxer who has a slow right jab will leave himself vulnerable to an opponent with a quick left hook, a forechecking team that gets caught down to low will give up quality chances to a strong transition team.
Back and forth the two teams went. When Toledo was able to get the puck through the neutral zone with speed they could attack. Kyle Bonis had the best chance in the first period as he skated into the zone and around a Kalamazoo defender who was caught flat-footed. Unfortunately for Bonis his shot on K-Wings goalie Nick Riopel went about four feet wide.
Kalamazoo answered with their brand of hockey. They got the puck into the Toledo zone, caused a turnover at the blueline when the Walleye tried to clear it and Justin Taylor fired a puck that Jake Paterson had to find through a sea of bodies in front to stop.
It would be Toledo’s inability to clear the puck that would lead to the first goal of the game. Granted they were on the penalty kill, but they still had a chance to make a play on the puck and failed to do it. There was a scrum along the corner and a Toledo defender managed to get enough on the puck to squirt it to forward Dane Walters who was at the left circle. As he stood there, Kalamazoo forward Cam Darcy simply stepped in front of him and stole the puck.
Darcy passed it back to Blake Kessel at the point who waited for Walters to skate toward him before sending the puck back to Darcy who one-timed it past Paterson on the short side for the early lead. It was Darcy’s third goal and ninth point of the series.
With the style that Kalamazoo was playing they needed to win faceoffs in their zone and get solid goaltending from Riopel, who was making his third straight start. Banging it off the glass led to several icings by the K-Wings and allowed Toledo to look like they were controlling a lot of the game. Despite spending a disportionate amount of time in the Kalamazoo end, they weren’t able to solve Riopel and he finished the period with ten saves.
They would use their speed in the second to tie the game up. Coming down the left side of the ice one-on-one against Kessel, Toledo forward Zach Nastasiuk dipped his shoulder and was able to turn inside on the Kalamazoo defender. He found enough space to cut in front of Riopel and then slide it under the netminder’s pads.
The play was set up on one of the few times the K-Wings allowed Toledo to connect on a long pass. Play had drifted to the right corner behind the Toledo net and all of the Kalamazoo skaters were caught on that side of the ice except for Kessel. Justin Agosta had his head up and fired a long cross-ice pass that was right on Nastasiuk’s stick and allowed the forward to skate in with speed.
The Wings retook the lead six minutes later by changing their game plan up a bit. Blueliner Eric Kattelus had the puck in his own zone and instead of throwing it up along the glass skated it out of the zone. He found an open Kyle Blaney who carried it into the zone and made a nice spinning pass to Tyler Biggs. Biggs found Kattelus in open ice and the big defenseman one-timed it at the net. The puck was stopped by Paterson, but he left the rebound sitting in front of the net and Bryan Hart banged it home.
The lead lasted roughly three minutes. This time it was Toledo changing things up. With thirty seconds left on the clock Tyson Spink brought the puck out of the corner. Instead of looking to dish it to a teammate, he skated toward the net while being mugged by Hart and flipped it past Riopel while falling to the ice.
An onslaught of whistles greeted the start of the third period. After allowing both teams to get away with pretty much every thing, the refs finally started blowing the whistle. Five penalties were called within the first five minutes of the final frame. Neither team could use it to their advantage and the game remained tied at two goals a piece.
From their on, it settled back into the rush, counter-rush flow that had dictated much of the game. Both goalie made quality saves with the biggest being a glove save Paterson made on Biggs after a broken play left the truculent forward with a prime scoring chance.
As the clock wound down under a minute, it looked like the game was heading for overtime. It would be a call that initially favored Kalamazoo that would lead to their undoing. With about 40 seconds left in the third period, Toledo defender Jordan Hill gathered the puck in his own zone and launched it off the boards and down the ice. Not only did it appear that Kalamazoo’s Eric Kattelus could play the puck, it also looked like Walleye forward Kyle Bonis won the race to the puck.
Nevertheless, it was whistled for icing and the puck went back into the Walleye zone. AJ Jenks won the faceoff for Toledo and headed down the ice. Hill did the same thing he did 10 seconds earlier, shot the puck up the ice along the boards. The puck made its way to Bonis at the Kalamazoo blue line. Bonis put it into open space and Jenks beat Wings center Justin Taylor to the puck. Taylor looked like he wasn’t sure if he should reach for the puck on the open ice or back off and defend Jenks. The moment of indecision was enough for the Walleye instigator to skate by him and roof a shot over the shoulder of Riopel and into the back of the net for the win.
A late surge by Kalamazoo went for naught and Toledo grabbed the 3-2 series lead. They will look to close it out on Sunday at 3:00pm as the series heads back to Kalamazoo.
Game Notes: Riopel stopped 24 of 27 shots while Paterson rebounded from his poor effort in Game 4 to stop 22 of 24...Peter Schneider assisted on Darcy’s goal and extended his point streak to 19 games...Kyle Bonis’ assist on the game winner gave him 10 points which leads the playoffs...Darcy and Tyson Spink are tied for second with 9 points...Toledo captain Alden Hirschfeld returned to the line-up after missing more than a month with a knee injury.