READING, PA – In the first game on home ice in the best-of-seven first round series, the Royals held off an early charge by the Walleye, struck first, and never trailed in a back-and-forth give-and-take classic playoff battle.
The win was not without moments of concern for the Royals, including an extended four-on-three power play mid-way into the second period when Reading was up by a goal but goaltender Martin Ouellette was nothing short of spectacular. Reading took a two-goal advantage in the relative early stages of the third; but a late-game sixth attacker goal by the Walleye gave the Reading-faithful pause. An even later game empty netter by Joe Rehkamp allowed the home fans to take a deep breath in preparation for a critical Game Four tonight.
The Royals and Walleye took a scoreless tie deep into the first period, punctuated by stellar goaltending which included an early highlight-reel save from Ouellette on a point blank look from Tylor Spink. 18:31 into the opening frame, Reading broke through when Maxim Lamarche snapped one off from the mid-slot. Toledo’s goaltender Jeff Lerg appeared poised to make a glove save, but as he fell to his left the puck popped free, igniting a multi-player battle for the loose puck. In the ensuing scrum, Lamarche, who had wisely followed his shot, dug the puck free and slipped a back-hand home for his first of the playoff season.
Midway into the second period, coincidental minors for roughing left the teams playing four aside, and for the second game in a row, the Walleye capitalized on the extra open ice. In this one, it was the Spink twins—Tylor and Tyson working their brilliant give-and-go one-time magic with Tyson burying a hot snapper out of the right circle across the body of Ouellette after taking a perfect drop pass from below the goal line from his twin brother 11:24 into the second frame.
1:17 later, the Royals regained the one-goal advantage when Yannick Tifu charged down the left wing side and ripped a snap shot out of the left circle that appeared to deflect off a Toledo defender’s stick and buzz over the right shoulder of Lerg for Tifu’s first of the playoff season and fifteenth career playoff goal as a Royal, making him the all-time leader in that category for Reading.
Shortly after that, Toledo opened the shooting gallery during an extended four-on-three power play sequence for the Walleye, during which Ouellette put on a clinic in how to handle a point-blank multi-shot attack when the pressure is at its peak. He—and his penalty killing teammates—not only withstood the pressure, they seemed to boost the confidence of the club heading to the third.
The Royals pushed the lead to two (3-1) and got what proved to be the game winner 7:53 into the final frame on another multi-player scramble around the net. This one started when Adam Comrie made a great play to pick off a Walleye clearing attempt and threaded the puck to the top of the crease, where a wide-open Mike Pelech attempted to stuff the puck home. That bid was rejected but it ignited a multi-player puck battle which ended when Ian Watters gained possession six feet off the top of the crease and threaded it through a pile of players out front for his first of the playoff season.
Toledo did not go quietly into the night, however. After pulling their goaltender in favor of a sixth attacker with about three minutes left, the Walleye turned up the pressure cooker and drew within one (at 3-2) when Beau Schmitz fired a shot from the high slot that went off Ouellette and fell to the right side of the crease, where Kyle Bonis settled and fired a sharp-angle short-side snapper that went behind—and across the body—of the sprawled out Ouellette, catching the left side of the net for his third of the playoff season with lots of time (2:04 to be exact) remaining.
But the Royals—and Ouellette—stood strong in the late-game onslaught, and Reading iced things with what has seemed to be an all-too-rare empty netter when Lamarche fought through a check in the defensive zone and freed the puck into the neutral zone, where Rehkamp skated onto the loose puck and didn’t miss with a 70 footer dead into the center of the net.
The Royals and Walleye resume their Kelly Cup Playoffs series showdown tonight at 7:00 pm at Santander Arena.