Vitucci guides Walleye through early season wavesWritten by Dave Woolford | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Toledo Walleye coach Nick Vitucci was leafing through the type-written pages as if they were Cliffs Notes and he was a student cramming for a mid-term exam the next morning.
It was shortly after the Walleye had lost to Florida’s Everblades in Toledo’s first game as a new franchise in the East Coast Hockey League in front of a sellout crowd of 8,000 in the exquisite new Lucas County Arena on Oct. 16.
The pages contained statistics of every Everblades player from last season, and Vitucci was quick to point out the most impressive numbers, which usually included players with more points than games played.
It was Vitucci trying to rationalize, with the aid of cold, hard facts, that despite, the 2-1 loss to what he correctly called the “Yankees” of the ECHL, his team, which we’ll call the Mud Hens for the sake of comparison, was in the hunt after a very tentative start.
No one, including Vitucci, knew what to expect from this Walleye team. Everyone knew what to anticipate from the opponent. The Everblades ran away with the regular season points title last season. It was a daunting scenario for the Walleye. Total embarrassment was an absolute possibility. Would it take a near miracle to salvage just two points with one win during the three-game series? That was the unspoken goal.
Walleye defenseman Jamie Milam, the Sher-Wood Hockey ECHL Player of The Week for Oct. 15-18, clearly defined the situation.
“Nobody talks about what’s going to happen. You don’t want to think about it. It’s a superstitious kind of thing, but you could tell leading up to the first weekend that people (teammates included) were unsure about our place in the league and what kind of team we were going to be,” he said. “After practicing together for two weeks, it’s totally different from a game situation and you never know what to expect. You don’t know what to count on all the way from the net to scoring.
“I’m sure there was some skepticism and people (teammates) thinking about what we were going to do and is this team really good. I think it showed in the first game. We lost 2-1, but it was a hard-fought game and we progressed and got better and better as the game went on. From that aspect, we kind of realized we can play with this team; we’re just as good and that kind of turned the light on to the fact that if we can play with this team, we can play with anyone in this league.”
After a second-period meltdown, the Walleye rallied to win the following night and then surprised anyone in the mood to be absolutely flabbergasted by beating the Everblades in overtime the next night in the third game of the three-game series.
Four points instead of two? The Mud Hens against the Yankees?
“I think we can be a special team this year,” Vitucci said with genuine conviction. “I’m certainly not guaranteeing a championship after the first weekend, but I think we sent a realistic message, not only through our own locker room, but throughout the rest of the league that, ‘hey, you know what? We’re an expansion team here in Toledo.’ We’re basically a brand new team but we’re a team to be reckoned with here. I know after Sunday that not only here in Toledo, but after hearing from coaches and other people around the league, we raised a few eyebrows.
“Basically, the game was close, we played with them and I felt after that game that if this is the team to beat in the ECHL, we’re going to be in good shape here in Toledo. I thought it was a great starting point. A great base to build from. I didn’t know what we would be going into Friday, honestly. Obviously, as the weekend evolved you could see our team just experiencing things and already getting things into place a little bit as far as leadership, work ethic and mental toughness.”
Then came the next game, at home, against Reading on Oct. 23. Final score: Reading 7, Walleye 3. Reality check?
Was this young expansion team already full of itself? The quick answer is no. The more insightful answer is still no but with a few addendums.
Walleye goalie Jordan Pearce was struggling, fighting the puck. His teammates recognized that and tried to do a little too much to compensate, Walleye coach Nick Vitucci said before his team’s game at Reading on Oct. 29.
Nothing out of the ordinary there. The Walleye came back to play an excellent game the following night, beating Reading 1-0 in overtime.
“I like where we’re at as far as our mindset,” Vitucci said. “We’ve shown very early in the year that we can be resilient and certainly come back from negativity and I think that’s huge for a team, especially this early in the season to have that mindset. We came back to win after being down a couple of goals, we came back after a negative period and we came back from an entirely negative game and turned it around the next night playing one of our better games.”
And so it goes for a new, young team that must realize it’s going through the spontaneity of a growth spurt.