With the West taking center stage the first two nights, the Eastern Conference will now step up and start up their second-season with the top team in all of the ECHL to start off the action.
(1N) Toledo Walleye vs. (4N) Wheeling Nailers
After a dismal season last year, the Walleye got a new coach and a new outlook in their hockey life by winning the Brabham Cup for most points in a season. One of the bigger reasons for that is the play by Jeff Lerg, who was a walk-on for coach Derek Lalonde and had a helluva season. Lerg should be in the running for top goaltender with his 32 wins on the season. More over than that, youth was served for the Walleye, as well, with rookies Tyler Barnes and Shane Berschbach leading scoring, with second year player Kyle Bonis leading the team with 36 goals on the year. Though Martin Frk is on the reserve list– his 23 goals in 29 games will be a boost if he gets sent down. On the blue line, Cody Lampl and Shane Sims have been solid and contribute here and there.
To counteract what Toledo has, the consistent nature of the Nailers will be on display. Though Derek Army was the only 20-goal scorer for the Nailers, they did have three above the 50-point plateau and were getting relief from Sahir Gill, who only played 26 games for the Nailers, but chalked up 29 points. They’re going to have to rely more on their defense, which is very unheralded with Paul Cianfrini and Tristan Llewellyn anchoring the blue line. With a solid tandem of Franky Palazzese and Eric Hartzell, the Nailers could be sneaky enough for the big upset.
These are two cities who are familiar with each other, as it is their fifth series between the cities; though it was the Toledo Storm who was before this. This is the first time the two cities have met since 2006 and there’s still no real love-loss. And while the Walleye dominated the season series by winning six of the seven games; the Nailers were on a hot streak towards the end of the season to get the last playoff spot in the North.
(2N) Fort Wayne Komets vs. (3N) Kalamazoo Wings
In their first year with a NHL affiliation, the Komets did get affected a little bit by some call-ups; but still were in the hunt for the top spot in the North Division thanks to the play they got from everyone when they were together. Shawn Szydlowski had a fantastic campaign with 38 goals and 74 points in only 57 games, while rookie Eric Faille played well enough to get promotions to Lake Erie with his 27 goals and 54 points in only 45 games in Fort Wayne. One true question is whether or not Pat Nagle or Roman Will will be in the cage for the playoffs. Both had a solid season and both stepped up when needed, but Nagle did miss some time at the end with a call-up to various AHL squads.
In net, Joel Martin has been consistent for the Wings, putting up 30 wins this year and being a leading force behind the Wings’ playoff push. Martin was tied for 3rd in shutouts with four, though his GAA and save percentage was not near the median for the league. Luckily, the Wings have three 25+ goal-scorers on the team with Matt Caria, Dane Fox, and Ludwig Blomstrand skating around; while Gergo Nagy put up an impressive 54-point season on his own. Jeremie Blain and Sacha Guimond are going to have to be in solid in the playoffs as they were in the season, while Sam Ftorek‘s veteran leadership should help the rest of the team.
It was an even match-up during the regular season, with the Komets winning eight of the 15 match-ups, which should prove to be a solid series. If Martin gets hot in net as he has been in spurts during the season could be the difference in the seven-game set.
(1E) Florida Everblades vs. (4E) Orlando Solar Bears
Though they weren’t as rowdy and have the big win-streaks as their compatriots in the East Division, the Everblades are still one of the most consistent teams in the league; making the playoffs for the 16th time in their 17 year history. Despite being called up to the AHL, Allen York has been solid for the ‘Blades in net in a mass of rookies that they have. While Andy Iles will be back in time, the weight will weigh on York for the most part. However, the acquisition of Casey Pierro-Zabotel could be key in the playoffs– despite him playing only five games and registering four assists. Luckily, Adam Brace, Alex Lavoie, and Mitch Wahl have been contributing offensively throughout with Brace being the guy to help against the Solar Bears with 16 points in the 15 match-ups.
With no 20-goal scorers, the Solar Bears will have to rely heavily on the play of Garret Sparks in net and the play of Bryce Aneloski, Eric Baier, and returning Eric Knodel on the blue line. While Jacob Cepis did a helluva job against Florida and during the season, the mid-season acquisitions of Johnny McInnis and Peter Sivak have added some scoring, despite the team not really have a outward goal scorer.
Without much goal-scoring, it could be rough for Orlando to advance, but should Sparks hit a hot streak; the Solar Bears could be the upset-special. That said, the Everblades look too tough and if they can get York for the entire series, will be looking ahead to next round.
(2E) South Carolina Stingrays vs. (3E) Reading Royals
It’s been a dream season for the Stingrays with team and league records broken all through out the year. With the tandem of Jeff Jakaitis and Adam Morrision, the Stingrays are in solid hands when it comes to the goaltending. With those guys putting up a combined 11 shutouts, the Stingrays don’t need to have a flashy offensive guy, with Derek DeBlois being the only 20-goal scorer who was on the Stingrays all season (Brandon Wong had only four on the Stingrays roster). With only two losses in their last 29, the Stingrays know how to win, but should look out for a Reading team who has been just as hot.
With six 20-goal scorers on their roster, the Royals are primed to trying and break the Jakaitis/Morrison contingency. Veteran Olivier Labelle is going to the prime focus of offense for the Royals, as he’ll get plenty of support from Cam Reid and Sean Wiles. They will need to score, as Connor Knapp and Martin Ouellette haven’t been the best, but have gotten the job done in net. Due to that, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the blue line, mainly Maxim Lamarche, Brett Flemming, and Jordan Heywood; all of which are vet presences on the defensive side of it.
These teams didn’t face-off much, which means they will be relative unknowns, having not played since late January. Both teams have changed plenty and will be hard up against each other, especially with plenty of guys who have known the grind of the Kelly Cup playoffs.