Toledo captain Alden Hirschfeld acknowledges fans during the team’s fan appreciation event Monday at the Huntington Center. BLADE/LORI KING
Inside the visitors locker room at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, Colo., on Saturday, emotions swelled with disappointment and sadness among a Toledo Walleye team that had drawn extremely close with the high hopes of capturing a coveted Kelly Cup.
Many eyes were red and tear-filled after a 6-3 loss to the Colorado Eagles in Game 5 of the Western Conference final.
“It’s a special group,” Walleye coach Dan Watson said. “There’s disappointment and shock. The expectations for this group were much higher than what we achieved. I’m really proud of the way the group came together.”
The Walleye won division and conference titles for the third straight regular season. The franchise also won the Brabham Cup for the best regular-season record for the second time in three seasons.
Yet the organization is still searching for the city’s first hockey championship since 1994.
In his first season at the helm, Watson was named the ECHL coach of the year. The Walleye set franchise records for total wins (51) and road wins (25).
Toledo also became the first team in the 29-year history of the ECHL to lead the league in most goals scored (302), fewest goals allowed (191), power-play percentage (25.1), and penalty kill success rate (86.8).
“I’m proud of this team,” captain Alden Hirschfeld said. “We accomplished a lot. We won a ton of games. It’s a team that plays for each other and not for themselves.”
The Walleye went 9-8 in the playoffs, with two of those losses in overtime. They were 8-1 at home but a disastrous 1-7 on the road. Three of those road defeats were in the conference final.
“It’s tough to cut it off like that,” forward Shane Berschbach said. “It leaves a sour taste in our mouths that we won’t be able to play another game in front of our home fans. They’ve been our backbone.”
Watson was an assistant captain for seven seasons, and he built this team with an up- tempo approach. The speedy, creative forwards used quick transition to attack.
The Walleye posted a 51-17- 4 record for 106 points during the regular season (a .736 winning percentage) and earned the top seed in the playoffs. Toledo then defeated rival Kalamazoo in the Central Division semifinals in seven games, and rival Fort Wayne in the Central Division final in five games.
This season the Walleye earned their 300th regular season victory in team history. The franchise has won 148 games during the regular season during the last three years. It had won just 86 in the three previous seasons.
In the organization’s eight years of existence, the team has made the postseason five times. Three of those times, the team was bounced in the first round. The other two times, this year and in 2015, the Walleye advanced to the conference final.
But Toledo lost two games in overtime to a bigger and more physical Colorado team. The Eagles had formidable size with two defensemen who were 6-feet, 4-inches, and seven others who were 6-2 or taller.
“They did not dominate us, but at end of day, we still lost,” Watson said. “We just didn’t capitalize on the opportunities. The puck luck didn’t happen, but the game plan was there. I’m not sure if it was our execution or if we were facing a better team, we just didn’t get the job done.”