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Paterson a key in Walleye push for title

04/03/2017, 12:16am EDT

Briggs: Goalie's play makes it easy to think Toledo could make playoff run

The Walleye's Jake Paterson protects the goal against Fort Wayne on Sunday. Paterson's play will be a key factor for Toledo this postseason. BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT

Thinking out loud ...

If we had to arbitrate the timeless barroom debate on the most important position in the four major American sports, here would be the ruling:

1a. Goalie.

1b. Quarterback.

3. Backup goalie.

But that’s not just our dumb opinion.

“A good goalie can win you games by himself,” Walleye coach Dan Watson said Sunday before Toledo’s 2-1 loss to rival Fort Wayne. “You can ride a hot goaltender all the way to the championship.”

Which brings us to Jake Paterson and a Toledo team in pursuit of the city’s first hockey title in 23 years.

You’re only as good as your goalie in the playoffs, and the Walleye have the best one going.

That’s why we wouldn’t worry about their four-game losing streak.

For as much as league-leading Toledo covets the Brabham Cup — the trophy awarded to the ECHL team with the best regular-season record — the bigger picture is the postseason.

And the Walleye’s lineup Sunday was again a fraction of their anticipated playoff roll call. They had four healthy scratches — including points leader Shane Berschbach on what a smiling Watson termed a “LeBron James maintenance day” — forward Alden Hirschfeld sidelined with a strained knee, and three top players up in the AHL. All are expected back for the start of the postseason later this month.

The more relevant story now is the play of Paterson.

If we had an ECHL MVP vote, he would be thick in the mix. Paterson, a 22-year-old Canadian selected by the Red Wings in the third round of the 2012 draft, could yet prove the equivalent of a baseball team’s fire-hurling ace ... if that ace could pitch every game of October.

All year, he has given Toledo a stonewalling presence, leading the league in wins (32) and shutouts (six). But lately, he has cranked up his game to a level that can carry a team when it matters most. In his last 15 starts, he has allowed only 25 pucks passage into the net — a 1.66 goals against average.

If Paterson did not win Sunday’s game by himself, he gave it a go, keeping the Walleye in it despite a 34-18 shots deficit. He punctuated a post-to-post stop with a beautiful glove save in the first period and turned back more than a couple breakaway chances. Watson called his play “stellar.”

Paterson credits the success to his newly permanent residence in goal. After splitting time with Jeff Lerg last year, he settled in this season during a midseason stretch of 18 starts in 19 games.

“When you know you’re the guy heading into it every night, it was good for my confidence,” Paterson said. “And obviously you’ve got to credit all the guys in front of you. It’s just a credit to the way we’ve been playing all year.”

And the way they hope to be playing again soon. With a full roster, Toledo looks every bit as good as its 2015 edition that won the Brabham Cup and came within one win of the championship series. Heck, it could be better. These Walleye lead the 27-team league in pretty much every offensive, defensive, and special teams category.

Really, what could go wrong?

“Well,” Watson said with a laugh, “a lot of things can go wrong.”

OK, good point. The whims of playoff hockey play no favorites. But the way Paterson is playing, it sure feels like a lot of things could go right.

● The Mississippi State women’s basketball team’s overtime upset of Connecticut on Friday may have been the most riveting college game of the season.

It’s just too bad the Final Four thriller began late in TV’s notorious Friday Night Death Slot — on ESPN2 no less — and ended well into Saturday morning.

If ESPN and the NCAA are serious about growing the women’s game, come on.

● The Toledo men played one of the nation’s most deceptively difficult early-season schedules this season, challenging Middle Tennessee State and UNC Wilmington among a line of top mid-major programs.

There is nothing deceptive about next year’s slate.

The Rockets will play late-November games at Kansas and Syracuse as part of the just-announced Hoophall Miami Invitational.

We must say the tourney name is a shade misleading. Really, it’s just a mishmash of games leading into one soulless, made-for-TV neutral site showdown. In a classic modern arrangement, Kansas and Syracuse will each host UT, Oakland, and Texas Southern, then leave behind their grand home venues to square off Dec. 2 at American Airlines Arena in Miami.

In any case, good on Toledo for jumping in the mix. If nothing else, these nationally televised guarantee games are fun for the fans.

● Anyone else for making this Box Out Awareness Month?

After watching the end of North Carolina’s semifinal win over Oregon, I know how my scarlet-faced high school coach once felt watching me.

For Oregon, what goes around came around. The Ducks won their Sweet 16 game over Michigan thanks to a missed box out on a late free throw and lost Saturday in part because of their disinterest in the same situation. With Oregon trailing by one point, the two Ducks players on the low block stood there like lamp posts with a fading bulb — and again, we know from experience — as North Carolina missed four straight free throws in the last six seconds. The Tar Heels snared both offensive boards to ice the win.

I’m the last guy to rail against the AAU circuit, kids these days, and eroding fundamentals. Just look at the NBA. It is a fantastic, well-coached product, as good as ever.

Sometimes, though, you wonder what in the world these teams do in practice.

Contact David Briggs at:, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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