Walleye ready to ‘grind’ with division foesWritten by Vincent D. Scebbi | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Even though it’s still early in the regular season, the Walleye are already stressing the importance of winning division games.
“I think in any league, division games are the most important because you win your division, you automatically make the playoffs,” said defenseman and alternate captain Wes O’Neill. “We’ve been preaching to the guys all year.”
Beginning Nov. 21, Toledo (9-7-1) will be spending plenty of ice time with the other four North Division teams. Over a span of 18 games, 14 will be against Kalamazoo, Evansville, Cincinnati or Fort Wayne.
The Walleye took the first of these 18 with a 4-2 win against the Cyclones in Cincinnati on Nov. 21.
The Cyclones struck back Nov. 23 with a 4-2 win in the Huntington Center, putting Toledo in 4-4 record against division foes on the year.
Cincinnati jumped Toledo for first place in the division with 20 points. The Walleye are just a point behind and in third are the Wings with 18 points. Fort Wayne is in fourth at 17 points and the IceMen are in last with 11 points.
“Traditionally, the other divisions had better points because I think this division that we play with Cincinnati and Kalamazoo and now Fort Wayne and Evansville, it’s a grind,” O’Neill said. “Every game is a grind and every game is a battle and we beat up on each other all year long. It’s a tough division to come out on top of and if you do, you’re battle tested and ready for the playoffs.”
O’Neill said these early games against division rivals are crucial in making a statement and building confidence for when these teams play again in later months.
“You go into their rinks and you can beat them and do it consistently and it takes a toll on you,” he said. “We want to instill that mentality that we’re going to be road warriors and go into these places and win. Also, when a division foe comes into our rink, we want to do everything we can to win it.”
Head coach Nick Vitucci said each division team plays its unique style of hockey – whether it’s Cincinnati’s aggressive forechecking or the Komets trapping the puck in the neutral zone and preparing for them will be mostly about making slight adjustments in practice and before the games.
“We know their tendencies and they know ours, there are really no hidden secrets with the power of video and you’re able to watch their games and they’re able to watch ours,” he said. “And [strategies] all work if they’re executed and that’s what it comes down to, execution, and obviously we’ve been doing that as of late.”
Coming into this stretch of games, the Walleye are riding on a hot streak, winning three straight and five of their last six games.
The streak has affected the attitude of the team and Vitucci said the mood is lighter and they are having fun in practice.
He said things would be much different if they were going into a stretch on a losing skid.
“The last couple days of practice have been fun,” he said. “Surely you can’t say that if you lose two or three games in a row. Guys might put some extra pressure on themselves and maybe we’re a little more demanding trying to right the ship.”
Their recent hot streak follows a four game losing streak that was snapped after a 5-2 win in Wheeling Nov. 9.
“There’s a saying that winning cures everything,” O’Neill said. “You could be having the worst weekend of the season when all of a sudden you win a game or two and everybody’s in a lot better mood, coaches are happy and all of a sudden you loosen the grip on your stick a bit and relax and then you start playing the way you should play.”
Captain Kyle Rogers said the key to staying in the hunt for a division title will be consistently playing simple hockey.
“We’ve got to keep the game simple and dump the puck on them and we did that with Fort Wayne in their place and we should have had three or four more goals but the pucks didn’t bounce our way,” Rogers said. It’s just about keeping the game simple and letting the game to us.”
Forward Randy Rowe stressed the importance of the first 20 games because it can help teams build a cushion before possibly making push for the postseason.
“Right now, winning these games helps us in the long run because those extra points carry on and you’re not beating yourself up trying to make a playoff push near the end of the season,” he said. “These points are crucial for us.”