As the main holiday season and the year wind down to a close, the ECHL will be having a dawning of a new era starting Saturday, as the Toledo Walleye are hosting not one, but two outdoor games– the first in ECHL history. In conjunction with the annual Toledo Winterfest, the Walleye were able to get something together with Fifth Third Field, home of the Toledo Mud Hens (which is the same owners as the Walleye), to go ahead and make this event possible. Saturday, the Walleye will play the Kalamazoo Wings and on January 3rd they’ll take on the Fort Wayne Komets. Outside of the SPHL, the ECHL is the last to hold an outdoor game in the minor league hockey pantheon.
And it comes at a great time for the Walleye, as when this was thrown about last year– the Walleye were in peril with their roster being a revolving door of players and not being able to get any kind of chemistry going. Now, the Walleye are one of the most offensive teams in the ECHL with a league leading 111 goals going into the outdoor game, which is averaging out to 4.3 goals a game. That’s not all, though, as they have only given up 73 goals, which is fourth lowest in the Eastern Conference, proving that head coach Derek Lalonde bringing one of his former players in Jeff Lerg (12-2-1, 2.57 GAA, .913 SV%) to tend net wasn’t a bad idea– despite Lerg being a smaller goalie.
To the offense, rookie Tyler Barnes (12g, 20a) is making the transition from the University of Wisconsin to professional hockey smashingly. With a 12 goals and team-leading 32 points on the year so far, Barnes is in the top-three in scoring for the ECHL. Anthony Luciani (13g, 15a) and Kyle Bonis (13g, 5a) have been lighting the lamp fantastically with 13 goals apiece with Shane Sims (4g, 7a) putting up three power-play goals from the blueline, which accounts for 75% of his goals.
However, the defense has been a round-about roster with Scott Czarnowczan and Jared Nightingale being called-up. Luckily, Joel Chouinard has picked up the minutes for those guys, all while Sims, Cody Lampl, Kevin Clare, and Richard Nedomlel have been rotating around to get the minutes accounted for. They may not be the most offensive group with only 15 goals coming from the back-end.
Their first opponent on the outdoors is the Kalamazoo Wings, who come into the game on a three game losing skid and only winning three of their last 10 games. However, one bright spot for the Wings is the play of rookie Curtis Valk (10g, 12a), who is coming in from the WHL Medicine Hat Tigers and leading the way with 12 goals and 22 points while getting call-ups from the Utica Comets. Nathan Longpre (7g, 11a) has been the secondary scoring for the Wings, with Sascha Guimond (2g, 15a) being the main contributor from the blue-line. Dane Fox (5g, 5a) has been the crucial player on the extra-man with three-power play goals.
Though, the Wings are going through some of the issues that the Walleye had last year with a lot of players being called up from two clubs– most notably Kane Lafranchise and John Negrin— while also trading away an offensive stud in Josh Brittain to Missouri. Another bright spot for the Wings has been the play of goalie Joel Martin (8-7-1, 2.90 GAA, .903 SV%), who is a two-time CCM Goalie of the Week winner as he accounts for all but one win for the Wings this season. ECHL all-time games played leading Sam Ftorek (0g, 6a) will add another notch to his belt in the ECHL by taking part in this, which should only help his long list of achievements.
In the new year, the Fort Wayne Komets will come into Fifth Third Field in what will be a battle of the two top teams in the North Division and in the Eastern Conference overall, the Komets having 43 points and leading the division (as of December 26th), while the Walleye are two points back. The Komets have been on a huge run with a streak currently of 11 games with at least a point– 10 of those being wins. However, of the four regulation losses for the Komets, the Walleye are responsible for two of them, as well as a shootout loss. Thus, the Komets will be determined to spoil the outdoor game and the festivities for the Walleye.
Despite losing Mitchell Heard to the AHL, the Komets keep rolling with their top line of Shawn Szydlowski (15g, 14a), Mike Embach (7g, 20a), and Eric Faille (12g, 14a) running on all cylinders, with Garrett Meurs being brought back from the AHL just in time to help contribute to his ECHL stats with nine goals, 13 points, and two power play markers in only 15 games. James Martin (5g, 17a) has been coming in strong from the blueline to contribute, while Matthew Pistilli (7g, 9a) will be hanging around for some secondary scoring.
But the goalie is a solid story as ECHL stalwart Pat Nagle is having another stellar season for the Komets with a 14-3-1 record, 2.38 GAA, and .910 SV%. Nagle has been a big help in keeping the Komets at the top of the Conference, but also has been getting a lot of help on defense from the likes of Drew Daniels (0g, 10a) and Joey Leach (1g, 8a) who have a combined +44 despite only totaling for 19 points between the two of them with just one goal in it all.
For all it’s worth, it should be a great happening for the city of Toledo and their hockey team– which has been a great success story in ECHL expansion. With the revitalization of the team from a down-turn last year, the Walleye are in a prime spot to make this spectacle a successful one in more than just attendance for this game– but getting four points out of these games will help them in the standings. The stage is set for the ECHL to be the first outdoor game of the hockey season and now it’s time for them to deliver in a decent way. Just have to hope that Mother Nature doesn’t completely take over– as it is supposed to rain Saturday afternoon at 50F, but will dip down to 36F for the game.