Central Division Semifinals Preview: Fuel vs. Walleye
Breaking down Indy's first ever playoff series before Game 1 in ToledoApr 12, 2018
The celebration has mostly subsided. The relief and jubilation has given way to focus and a quiet determination. On a week where many teams across the ECHL are conducting exit interviews and emptying out their locker rooms, the Indy Fuel were instead packing their bags for a weekend trip to Ohio.
After clinching the first postseason berth in franchise history on Sunday, the Fuel are set to make their Kelly Cup Playoff debut this Friday as they open the Central Division Semifinals against the Toledo Walleye. Game 1 is set for a 7:35 p.m. puck drop at the Huntington Center, with Game 2 following on Sunday afternoon. The best-of-seven series shifts to Indianapolis for Games 3 and 4 on April 18 and 19, with Game 5 being played April 21 if necessary at Indiana Farmers Coliseum.
The Fuel capped off a brilliant second half of their season with a 2-1 victory over Kalamazoo on Sunday to secure the fourth seed in the Central Division, punching their ticket to the ECHL postseason. Finding themselves in sixth place and nine points out of the playoff picture at the midway point of the campaign, Indy raced back into contention down the stretch; posting a 15-7-3-0 record over the last 25 games on the schedule while picking up points in 12 of the team's last 14 games (9-2-3-0).
With the best regular season in the four-year history of the Fuel in the rear-view mirror, the club prepares to take on a group with no shortage of playoff experience. The top-seeded Walleye return to the Kelly Cup Playoffs after finishing atop the Central Division standings for the fourth consecutive season. With a regular season record of 50-17-3-2 and 105 points, Toledo claimed the top spot in the Western Conference for the second straight season, ending just seven points shy of the Florida Everblades in the race for its third Brabham Cup in four years.
Last spring, the Walleye defeated Kalamazoo (7 games) and Fort Wayne (5 games) before bowing out to the eventual 2017 Kelly Cup Champion Colorado Eagles four games to one. Toledo has advanced to the Conference Finals twice in the last three seasons, though in 2016 the club was dispatched in the first round by the eighth-seeded Reading Royals (7 games).
Inside The Regular Season Matchup:
At first glance it would appear that the Walleye held a dominant edge in the 2017-18 season series, winning eight of the nine meetings between the two clubs. However, the lopsided win-loss record did not indicate how competitive the series actually was. Five of the nine games between Indy and Toledo were decided by a single goal, and eight of the nine contests were one-goal games at some point during the third period. The only game that wasn't up-for-grabs down the stretch took place on March 11 at the Huntington Center, when the Fuel rolled to a 7-4 victory.
Each of the Walleye's last two victories in the season series came via overtime, with Toledo needing a late equalizer to force the extra session. On March 17, the visiting Walleye rallied from a 3-0 deficit for a 4-3 overtime win, before a back-and-forth contest fell in favor of Toledo last Saturday by a 5-4 tally. Indy has been able to jump out to early leads in recent meetings, outscoring the Walleye by a 6-0 count in the first period over the last three games.
On paper the Fuel and Walleye could not be more even when it comes to their respective offenses. With each team producing at a clip of 3.36 goals per game through the regular season, the Fuel and Walleye finished in an eighth place tie in ECHL team scoring.
INDY: One of the catalysts for the Fuel’s second-half surge up the standings was the club’s balanced scoring attack. Seven Indy forwards finished with over 40 points, led by the trio of Michael Neal (20g, 32a), Darian Dziurzynski (25g, 26a) and Josh Shalla (28g, 22a). Shalla set a Fuel single-season record with 28 goals in only 42 games, with Neal, Dziurzynski and Johnny McInnis (20g, 16a) each reaching the 20-goal plateau.
The Fuel did not rely on one line to carry their offense, with all three forward units combining for over 100 points in the regular season. Dziurzynski, Neal and Logan Nelson have a total of 138 points between them, while Indy’s go-to shutdown combo of McInnis, Ryan Rupert and Matt Rupert have contributed 57 goals and 125 points.
TOLEDO: The Walleye enter the postseason with 10 forwards who racked up at least 25 points in the regular season. Led by a trio of 50-point scorers in Tyler Barnes (20g, 33a), Kyle Bonis (27g, 24a) and Shane Berschbach (19g, 32a), Toledo received offensive depth from Mike Borkowski (19g, 29a), Christian Hilbrich (23g, 23a) and Austin Brassard (10g, 24a).
The combo of Bonis, Berchbach and Barnes combined to tally 30 points (11g, 19a) over nine games against Indy.
INDY: A mix of youth and leadership make up the Fuel blue line contingent, led by nine-year veteran Zach Miskovic (7g, 12a). Mid-season acquisition Jaynen Rissling (7g, 23a) and AHL Rockford-assignee Brandon Anselmini (2g, 15a) proved to be offensive threats on the back end, while rookies Riley Sweeney (2g, 11a) and Jack Burton (3g, 8a) fill out the Indy defensive corps.
The Fuel will try and find a way to make up for the loss of Robin Press, who suffered an upper-body injury after setting a club single-season record with 44 points (10g, 34a). Garrett Clarke (6g, 10) figures to slide back into Indy’s top six, with his physical style of play promising to make life difficult for Toledo’s forwards.
TOLEDO: Where last year’s Walleye squad operated through their high-scoring offense, the 2017-18 Toledo contingent used a stifling defense to earn the top seed in the Western Conference. The Walleye surrendered a stingy 2.36 goals per game, second to only South Carolina’s 2.13.
Simon Denis (6g, 29a) returns from his AHL call-up in time for the playoffs, while Ryan Obuchowski (5g, 30a) led Toledo with a plus-28 rating. 2017 ECHL All-Star Kevin Tansey (7g, 8a), Beau Schmitz (7a) and rookies Patrick McCarron (9g, 10a), Kevin Lohan (3a) and Jared Wilson (4a) round out the Walleye defensemen.
Goaltenders & Special Teams:
An All-Star matchup in net and a battle of two of the most potent power plays in the ECHL will highlight the Central Division Semifinals.
INDY: The Fuel hitched their wagon to Étienne Marcoux down the stretch, and the rookie netminder responded by backstopping his team to the first playoff berth in team history. Marcoux finished with a 22-12-2 record, a 2.94 goals against average, and a .918 save percentage, posting an 8-1-1 mark over his last 10 starts to end the regular season.
TOLEDO: Marcoux’s counterpart in round one will be All-ECHL Second Team goaltender Pat Nagle. The seventh-year pro led the league with 37 wins this season, ranking fifth and sixth in save percentage (.934) and goals against average (2.23) respectively. Against Indy, Nagle posted a 7-0-0 mark, alongside a 2.52 goals against average and a .925 save percentage.
SPECIAL TEAMS: No team was more dangerous with the man advantage than the Fuel. Indy finished the regular season with a 22.8% success rate on the power play, more than 2.5% better than the second place Cincinnati Cyclones. Leading the league with a team-record 61 power play goals, the Fuel scored on 26.1% of their man power opportunities on home ice.
On the penalty kill, Indy finished 19th in the ECHL at 82.7%, though the club’s 13 shorthanded goals tied for second-most in the league.
The Walleye finished tied for fifth on the circuit with an 18.6% rate on the power play, ranking third on home ice at 21.6%. Toledo boasted the ECHL’s second-best penalty kill unit in the regular season with an 87.0% success rate.
INDY: Despite coming into the Kelly Cup Playoffs as the fourth seed in the Division, the Fuel are an example of a team getting hot at the right time. Needing every point from their second-half push to catch Kansas City and Kalamazoo in standings, Indy has essentially been in playoff-mode since mid-February.
If the Walleye – who have been at the top of the division all season long – can’t match the same level of urgency that the Fuel have been playing with for weeks, Indy can take advantage.
TOLEDO: One benefit of finishing first in the conference is the home ice advantage that comes with it. Toledo finished the regular season with a 28-7-1-0 record at the Huntington Center – the 28 home wins ranking first in the ECHL.