There is no better time or place to become endeared to your fans than in the seventh game of a playoff series. When a player comes through in a true “win or go home” moment, they are remembered forever in a city. Ruslan Fedotenko was an alright NHL player who had a decent career in the league (366 points in 863 games), but to Tampa fans he’ll always be remembered and adored as the guy who scored twice in Game 7 to win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Much like Fedotenko it’s often the players that fans don’t expect that come through in the big situations. It could be a rookie like Tyler Heinonen with just five games of pro experience, none in the playoffs, who was inserted in the line-up due to Kalamazoo’s leading scorer missing the game with a facial injury. Or it could be a diminutive veteran goalie like Jeff Lerg, coming off the bench in the second period after the starter leaves due to an ankle injury.
Unfortunately for Kalamazoo it was the latter. Lerg, the backup goalie with five seasons in the ECHL, stepped off the bench in the second period and stopped 13 of 14 shots in route to a 3-1 Toledo Walleye victory on Tuesday night. The victory eliminated the Wings and propelled the Walleye into the second round where they will face the Ft. Wayne Komets.
Tension built all night as the two teams traded shots in the first period. Kalamazoo went with Joel Martin, the franchise’s all-time leader in wins, for the second straight night and he was up to the task in the first period stopping all nine shots he faced. Jake Paterson, who has been up and down all series, denied the Wings on their thirteen attempts on goal.
The crowd of 7,473 mostly Walleye fans were loud for most of the night and a fight between the Wings Kyle Blaney and Toledo defender Landon Oslanski one minute into the game did nothing to quiet them down. Seeing Paterson skate off the ice three minutes into the second period did give them pause for a few minutes.
Kyle Bonis, the league’s leading scorer in the postseason, got them back on their feet with less than four minutes left to go as he eluded the back check of Josh Pitt and a poke check by Martin to roof a backhander over the Kalamazoo goalie to break the scoreless tie.
The fans didn’t get to celebrate their lead for long as Kalamazoo’s Charlie Vasaturo banked a shot from the point off of a player in front of the net and past Lerg to tie the game up. The goal came just 52 seconds after the Bonis goal and the teams were leveled at 1 heading into the third period.
One of the hallmarks of the Walleye’s offense this season has been their ability to score in rapid succession. In the first two games of this series, they used a couple of quick outbursts to beat the Wings, and in Game Seven, they would do it again midway through the third period.
First it was Evan Rankin scoring his fifth goal of the series. He found a little daylight behind the Kalamazoo defense and snapped a shot past Martin’s blocker.
Thirty seven seconds late Zach Nastasiuk took advantage of a slow Kalamazoo line change and scored his third goal in the last three games as he beat Martin over his glove on a partial breakaway.
With two minutes to go in their season, the Wings pulled Martin in favor of an extra attacker, but weren’t able to solve Lerg. They finished with the period with ten shots and he stopped all of them. The Wings fought hard to take the the Walleye to the brink in a series many predicted would be over shortly. Unfortunately, they just didn’t have enough in the end to overcome the number-one seeded team in the playoffs.