DULUTH, GA– Going into the opening weekend of the season, the Toledo Walleye basically faced an unknown opponent in the Atlanta Gladiators. The last time Toledo was in Georgia was on November 2, 2014, and the last time the Gladiators were in Ohio was on February 22, 2014.
The Walleye started the weekend with goalie Jake Paterson between the pipes, after spending last season as the backup for the team. Following a bad turnover by forward Shane Berschbach, Atlanta forward Colin Jacobs took full advantage and beat Patterson for the first score of the game. Bryan Cameron added a tally of his own and the Gladiators led Toledo by a score of 2-0 after 20 minutes of play.
Toledo fought back early in the second period with Alden Hirschfeld scoring his first goal of the season, cutting Atlanta’s lead to 2-1. In maybe the only highlight in Patterson’s night, the Walleye netminder stoned Atlanta’s Brock Higgs on a penalty shot midway through the middle frame. Later in the period, Atlanta was able to reclaim their two-goal lead with ECHL veteran Derek Nesbitt scoring on a bad rebound from Paterson making it 3-1 in favor of the Gladiators. Atlanta put a stranglehold on the game with Tyler Murovich scoring in front making it 4-1 just 1:09 into the third period. Even though Toledo was able to muster 44 shots on goal, it was the Gladiators goalie Matt Ginn doing some very solid work in net. Another interesting storyline from the game was how physical Toledo was at times. Jared Nightingale picked up six penalties minutes throughout the game, and new Walleye forward Carter Sandlak tried to get Higgs to drop the gloves at the end of the game. It seems apparent that new head coach Dan Watson wants his edge to his team this year.
Onwards to the second game of the weekend, Watson gave the nod to newcomer Cal Heeter, making his first start for the Walleye. Again, the Gladiators got on the board first with Thomas Frazee banging one home in front to give Atlanta the early lead. Only a minute later, Toledo’s Kyle Bonis scored on a wrister to tie the game on a pass from Alden Hirschfeld. Then, twenty-two seconds later, A.J. Jenks scored making 2-1 and giving the Walleye their first lead of the year. Toledo lead was short-lived when Higgs scored the equalizer. Tyler Sikura was able to get Toledo’s lead back off a great feed from Tyson Spink making it 3-2 Walleye after a wild first period.
Following the same story line from Friday’s game, Toledo struck early in the second period, scoring just 1:52 into the frame when Evan Rankin buried a feed from Jenks. The Walleye recorded their first shorthand goal from the year from Bonis at 6:18 of the period. Atlanta again answered with Trevor Mingoia scored after picking the pocket of Derek Docken. Jenks got it right back for Toledo scoring at 12:31 of the second period. Even though Collin Jacobs scored in the third to add more points to his weekend total, Bonis sealed the win for Toledo and completed the hat trick on and empty net goal at 16:18 of the third period making it 7-4 and putting the game out of reach.
Toledo’s physical play again continued Saturday night with Nightingale getting into his first fight of the year against Justin Buzzeo. Jenks had the best fight of the night, though, dropping the mitts with after a big hit on Shane Berschbach in the third period.
Heeter stopped everything he had to in his first game while Gladiators goalie Matt Ginn struggled, unlike the night before. Unlike Friday’s game, the offense showed up for Toledo which really was the difference in the game.
Yes, it’s really early, but Dan Watson’s style of play already looks different from former Toledo coach Derek Lalonde’s teams. Toledo continues the road swing going up against the Cincinnati Cyclones on Tuesday and then the Brampton Beast on Friday before their opener against the Beast on Saturday night. Atlanta’s next game is against the Allen Americans on Wednesday in Allen. Even with a loss, it surely was a positive weekend for Toledo in Duluth.