Disappointment has quickly turned into determination for a Toledo Walleye team suddenly facing elimination from the Kelly Cup playoffs.
Toledo lost for the second time on home ice Saturday to fall into a 3-2 hole against rival Fort Wayne in the Central Division final series. The Walleye face a must-win situation at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Game 6 of the best-of-7 series at Memorial Coliseum.
The players and coaches clearly were disappointed after losing 4-1 in Game 5 at the Huntington Center on Saturday. But the group appeared undeterred Monday, citing the team's resiliency and 23-11-4 road record.
“Everyone is positive and upbeat,” veteran forward A.J. Jenks said. “We just have to go win a road game. It's everything to us. We've been working since October and we're not ready to hang it up yet. We've been through ups and downs. We've handled the adversity very well.”
The Walleye hope to force a Game 7 back at home Wednesday. Toledo has played in five Game 7s the past three postseasons, including a series win against the Komets in the division final round in 2015. Toledo went 5-1-0 against the Komets in 2016-17 and were 2-0 at Memorial Coliseum.
“We know we can get it done,” Jenks said. “It's in our hands. If we go in there and do the right things and play the right way, we come back here for Game 7.”
Toledo went 0-3-1 in Fort Wayne in the 2017-18 regular season. But the Walleye split the first two games of this series in Memorial Coliseum, and had perhaps their best game of the postseason despite a 3-1 defeat in Game 4 on Friday.
“It will definitely be tough,” veteran Kyle Bonis said. “Fort Wayne is not an easy place to play, and that's a good hockey team. But we'll get some desperation to our game.”
The Walleye won eight straight on the road to end the regular season and have won 11 of their past 12 away from home.
“The last 12 road games, we've done a really good job,” coach Dan Watson said. “Our confidence is high, and there's no reason it shouldn't be. We won a game there [4-3 in Game 3]. We will have a good mindset. We will draw on how well we've played on the road.”
Forward Mike Borkowski, who has three assists in four games against the Komets, said the team must have better puck management.
“There is a lot of belief in this room,” Borkowski said. “We've won back-to-back games all year. We've studied film and we're confident. We are very tight here. We want to keep this going not only for us but also [for] the great people that come out to watch us. They've done a great job of supporting us all year, and we certainly want to bring it back here for a Game 7. We have a lot to play for and we're ready for it.”
Bonis, Jenks, and Shane Berschbach all were part of Toledo teams that emerged on top after facing elimination in recent seasons. The trio led the Walleye from a 3-0 hole against South Carolina in the 2015 conference final series to force a Game 7 with a road win in Game 6. Then in the 2016 opening-round series against Reading, Toledo won Game 6 on the road to force a decisive Game 7.
“Bringing that up helps,” Watson said. “The guys know it can be done. We've had experiences to lean back on that helped us get to a Game 7. It's a mindset and will.”
Watson said it falls on the shoulders of the veterans.
“The leadership group has to step up. In these situations, you need your best players to be your best players,” Watson said. “At this point, everyone needs to play their best.”
Forward Dylan Sadowy, who scored the only goal in Game 5 and has three goals in the series, said the team quickly turned the page after the loss.
“It wasn't the outcome we wanted but we've won back-to-back games many times this season,” Sadowy said. “We will regroup.”
Borkowski said he expects another goaltending duel from Toledo's Pat Nagle and Fort Wayne's Michael Houser. Nagle, who was with the Komets last season, is 6-3 in the playoffs with a 2.52 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. Houser is 7-2-1 with a 2.40 GAA and .918 save percentage. But Houser has been lights-out the past two games, stopping 76 of 78 shots.
“We have to get in front of Houser,” Borkowski said. “Obviously, he has been a difference maker for them for sure. Much like Nags has been a difference maker for us. It's two really good goalies. We have to make sure we get second-chance opportunities.”
Watson said the team will be putting emphasis on sustaining pressure in the Komets’ end, getting traffic in front of Houser, and cashing in with gritty goals.
“We need to take his eyes away,” Watson said. “We need to get pucks to the net. We're missing the net too much. We have to force him to make [difficult] saves and then be there to pounce on second-chance opportunities.”
Fort Wayne coach Gary Graham said his team must remain on an even keel because the Komets face a daunting task.
“You have to keep managing the highs and lows. You're happy to get a win [on the road on Saturday]. But the fourth win to close out a series is always the toughest,” Graham said. “So it's going to take a hell of an effort for us to close them out.”
Jenks, who has six points in nine playoff games, said the team has proven it can win in Fort Wayne.
“We're taking the mentality that we have to do everything [in] our power to win [Tuesday] and get the series back here,” he said.
Perhaps the greatest motivator is the eagerness to continue camaraderie built since October with bonds made through countless round trips. Playing for the guys in the room and the desire to keep the journey going might be the biggest, unquantifiable factor.
“I think that's massive,” Watson said. “It's about ourselves. Guys have to believe and trust in each other. And we do. We just have to put it all together.”