ECHL: Central Division Final Series Preview: Toledo Walleye vs. Wheeling Nailers

Photo: Drake Harlett | Inside The Rink

The Toledo Walleye and Wheeling Nailers face off in the Central Division final that starts on Friday night in Toledo at the Huntington Center. The Walleye and Nailers met four times during the regular season, with each team grabbing two wins each. Toledo has the league’s best scorer in Brandon Hawkins, while Wheeling has the league’s best goaltender in Taylor Gauthier. The two teams blew through the first round and have a combined 8-1 record during the playoffs. The schedule for the series is as follows:

Toledo Walleye vs Wheeling Nailers Schedule

Game 1: 5/3 at Toledo at 7:15 PM

Game 2: 5/4 at Toledo at 7:15 PM

Game 3: 5/8 at Wheeling at 7:10 PM

Game 4: 5/10 at Wheeling at 7:10 PM

Game 5: 5/11 at Wheeling at 7:10 PM

Game 6: 5/13 at Toledo at 7:15 PM

Game 7: 5/14 at Toledo at 7:15 PM

Wheeling comes into the series against Toledo on a four-game winning streak after losing game 1 to the Indy Fuel in round one. Nailers goaltender Taylor Gauthier was the recipient of Nick Vitucci’s ECHL Goaltender of the Year and recently came back to the Nailers after a stint in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Wilkes-Barre/ Scranton Penguins. He did not play a game in the first round but could be a big factor in who wins this series. Goaltender Jaxon Castor played the entire first round and posted a record of 4-1 with a 2.00 goals-against-average and a .931 save percentage. Leading the Nailers is defenseman Justin Lee, who has one goal and five assists for six points and is a +7. Forwards Jordan Martel (4-5-9) and Justin Addamo (3-6-9) lead the team in scoring, with nine points a piece.

The Walleye came into the second round with both goaltenders, John Lethemon and Jan Bednar, each playing two games in the first-round sweep of the Kalamazoo Wings. Lethemon finished the first round with a 2-0 record, a 2.00 GAA, and a .934 save percentage, while Bednar went 2-0 with a 1.97 GAA and a .934 save percentage. Toledo is led offensively by Hawkins, who has two goals and six assists for eight points in four games, followed by Trenton Bliss, who has three goals and three assists for six points. The defense is led by Riley McCourt (1-3-4) and Michael Prapavessis (0-4-4), who are tied with four points a piece.

How they got here

Central Division Semifinals

Toledo defeated Kalamazoo 4-0

Toledo 3 Kalamazoo 2 (OT)

Toledo 5 Kalamazoo 2

Toledo 6 Kalamazoo 2

Toledo 4 Kalamazoo 2

Wheeling defeated Indy 4-1

Indy 5 Wheeling 2

Wheeling 7 Indy 1

Wheeling 3 Indy 2 (OT)

Wheeling 3 Indy 0

Wheeling 4 Indy 2

In playoff comparisons, the Walleye has a record of 4-0, while Wheeling is 4-1. Wheeling has scored 19 goals to Toledo’s 18 but has more goals scored against 10-8. Toledo is 2-0 at home and on the road, while Wheeling is 3-0 at home and 1-1 on the road.

Who to Watch for

Nailers defenseman Isaac Beliveau played a crucial role for Wheeling in the regular season, playing an offensive role but taking care of his end also. Beliveau is a threat on the powerplay and has a heavy shot from the point that can find its way through or be deflected. He joins the rush whenever he wants to and creates offense like a fourth forward. While he has one point (a goal) in four playoff games, he did have 14 goals and 24 assists for 38 points in 70 regular-season games. Beliveau could be one to watch as he looks to get his point production back to where it was in the regular season.

Walleye forward Sam Craggs could be a sneaky player to watch the longer the playoffs go. Through four playoff games, Craggs has four goals and one assist for five points. During the regular season, he had 28 goals and 28 assists for 56 points in 70 games. He is good in all situations, comes with a lethal shot, and is an underrated passer. While most of the attention will be on Hawkins and Bliss, Craggs could play a critical role in this series.

Two good teams facing off in the Central Division Final, and a series that could go the full seven games. Hawkins against Gauthier could be a David versus Goliath match-up and one that could determine the series. Wheeling has a good solid lineup that could give Toledo fits in every game. Toledo has a deep roster that can score at will, but does Wheeling have the goaltending to shut it down? Toledo takes this series in six games.

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