ECHL Playoffs Series Recap: Wheeling Nailers vs. Toledo Walleye | Round 2

Toldeo Walleye salute their home crowd after a game two win over the Wheeling Nailers.
Photo Credit: Drake Harlett | Inside The Rink

The Wheeling Nailers and Toledo Walleye met in the 2024 Kelly Cup Playoffs second round in a best-of-seven series to determine who moves on to play for the Western Conference championship. The Nailers put up valiant efforts in games one and four, but it was all Toledo in games three and four as it swept the series to move on to face the Kansas City Mavericks with a trip to the Kelly Cup Final on the line.

Throughout the series, five key players shined for the Walleye to sweep the Nailers; Matt Anderson (1-4-5), Sam Craggs (2-4-6), Riley Sawchuk (4-4-8), Brandon Kruse (1-3-4) and Mitchell Lewandowski (2-2-4). The Nailers could not find an answer for these five players, especially Sawchuk, who had a 5-point night in a 7-3 win to lift Toledo to a 3-0 series lead.

For Wheeling, three players stood out from the rest. Those players being Matthew Quercia (1-4-5), Justin Lee (2-1-3) and Jordan Martel (1-3-4).

Between the pipes, the Walleye continued with the rotation as they did in round one with John Lethemon and Jan Bednar. In two games played, Lethemon had a 1.85 goals against average and a .913 save percentage against the Nailers. Bednar carried a 2.40 goals against average and a .915 save percentage in games two and four.

Jaxon Castor overall gave enough to the Nailers to help them move on. Game three is where Castor’s stats took a hit as he had a 4.13 goals against average and a .887 save percentage in the three games he started. Garret Sparks made an appearance in relief in game three, stopping all seven shots he faced. Taylor Gauthier made the final start in net for the Nailers posting a 2.75 goals against average and a .917 save percentage in game four.

The Nailers penalty kill was not the best during the series. The Nailers were 12/16 on the kill (75%) and the powerplay was atrocious going a measly 1/11 (9%). When it comes to playoff time, special teams, defense and goaltending is where you win or lose a series. In the goaltending aspect, the series could have gone either way with the Nailers goaltenders playing out of their minds. With defense and special teams, the Walleye were always going to win the series.

Game One

Game one between the Walleye and the Nailers was played at Huntington Center in Toledo, OH on May 3. Neither team could find the back of the net until the second period when Martel opened the scoring at 12:23. The Nailers did well to hold on to the lead and take it into the third period. The Walleye, however, found their game that made them a difficult team to play against and tied things up from a Lewandowski goal at 14:40. In the final frame, Toledo put up 17 shots while limiting Wheeling to merely just two shots on net. Having all the momentum, Toldeo took game one in overtime thanks to a Brandon Hawkins game-winning goal at 10:51.

Castor played a phenomenal game in net in the loss for Wheeling, stopping 33-of-35 in 70:48 of game action. Lethemon won his third game of the playoffs as Toledo turned to him to kick off the series. Lethemon stopped 23-of-24 in the winning effort.

Brandon Hawkins gets a shot on the Wheeling net.
Photo Credit: Drake Harlett | Inside The Rink

Game Two

Toldeo extended its series to 2-0 after a 5-3 win over the Nailers on May 4. The scoring was shared around for Toledo as it had five goal scorers, with ten players recording at least a point. Jason Willms of the Walleye opened the scoring at 7:25, but Lee knotted the game at 17:13. Just 37 seconds after Lee tied things up, Lewandowski gave the lead back to the Walleye and took it into the first intermission. Toledo extended its lead early in the second as Anderson would get his name in the goal column at 4:02. The Nailers continued to try and claw their way back into the game, scoring to make it a 3-2 game at 12:56 when Isaac Belliveau buried one in the back of the net for his first of the series. Just under 3 minutes later, the Walleye got on the board again, but this time it was Orrin Centazzo to get his first of the series at 15:47 to take a 4-2 lead into the second intermission for the Walleye. Shots to this point were 30-24 in favor of the Walleye. Castor played unbelievably well again, and he did so in the third period to keep his team within reach. At 8:57 of the third, Lee notched his second of the game to bring the Nailers to within one with plenty of time tie things up. Wheeling put up nine shots in the third period, but were not able to get another past Bednar as Sawchuk would tack on an empty-net goal at 19:11 to make it a 5-3 game. Both goalies stood on their heads as the shots were 42-33 in favor of the Walleye.

Jan Bednar makes his way onto the ice to prepare for game two.
Photo Credit: Drake Harlett | Inside The Rink

For the Walleye, Craggs, Trenton Bliss, Michael Prapavessis, Jacob Graves, Kruse, and Lewandowski all recorded at least an assist in the game.

Davis Bunz, Quercia, Louie Roehl, Matt Koopman, Martel, and Belliveau picked up at least an assist on the Wheeling goals.

Bednar stopped 30-of-33 while Castor stopped 28 of the 32 shots he faced.

Game Three

Game three on May 8 was a completely different story from the first two. From the opening puck drop, Toledo had a foot on the gas the entire game, knowing it could have Wheeling on the brink of elimination and have a few extra days of rest. In the opening frame, the Walleye took a 3-1 lead into the second period. Sawchuk, Craggs, and Kruse scored the goals for the Walleye while Koopman scored the loan goal Nailers goal. Nailers did not generate enough shots on net in the second period, collecting just five registered shots on net, but were able to score two goals. The Walleye were able to match the Nailers in goals for the period as Toldeo took a 5-3 lead into the second intermission. Hawkins and Sawchuk (2) scored the goals for the Walleye as Drake and Quercia scored for the Nailers. Defensively, the Nailers were able to get things done to give themselves a chance, but could not muster anything up offensively. The Walleye were able to tack on two empty-net goals, one at 17:45 and one at 18:51 to win the game 7-3. Alexandre Doucet and Craggs tacked on the empty-net goals to seal the deal on a 3-0 series lead for the Walleye.

Craggs (2), Anderson, Sawchuk (3), Centazzo, Willms, Prapavessis and Lewandowski all recorded assists in the game for the Walleye.

Drake, Quercia and Koopman recorded the assists for the Nailers.

It was a rough outing for Castor as he gave up five goals on 21 shots in 31:28 of play. Sparks come on in relief for Castor and stopped all seven shots he faced in the 27 minutes of time he saw. Lethemon recorded the win for Toledo, stopping 19 of the 22 shots he faced, which moved him to 4-0 in the playoffs and 2-0 in the series.

Game Four

With their season on the line, the Nailers needed to make a desperate change, and they did so between the pipes with Gatuhier making his 2024 Kelly Cup Playoff debut in a must-win game for Wheeling. Gauthier had been reassigned to the Nailers to begin the series after time with their American Hockey League affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, for round one. Bednar and Gauthier played perfect hockey to begin the game, turning away every shot they faced in the first to keep it a scoreless game through 20 minutes. Wheeling led in shots for the period 13-8. The Nailers got that all important first goal when Dillon Hamaliuk opened the scoring at 8:09 of the second period. At 16:54, Toledo tied the game up thanks to a Hawkins goal, and the second would finish 1-1. A minute and a half after puck drop on the third period, Chase Gresock scored early to give the Walleye a 2-1 lead. Needing to find a way to tie things up and keep their season alive, the Nailers captain came in clutch to tie the game at 2 at 9:17, which would eventually force overtime for the second time in the series. A bad penalty from Wheeling’s Drake gave the Walleye an early powerplay opportunity at 5:03 of overtime. Toledo’s Sawchuck needed just 34 seconds of powerplay time to end the Nailers season and send his team to the Western Conference Finals.

Though a disappointing result, Gauthier did everything he could to give the Nailers a chance to fight another day. He stopped 33-of-36 shots. On the other end, Bednar stopped 24-of-26 to secure his fourth win of the playoffs, and second win of the series.

With the series sweep, Toledo swept a second-straight round to extend their win streak to 22 between the regular season and playoffs.

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Zachary Alvarado

Inside The Rink journalist covering the Wheeling Nailers and Norfolk Admirals of the ECHL. I am a Duquesne University Sports Information and Media major graduating in December. I have been passionate about hockey since I was 4 years old.

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Wheeling Nailers salute their home crowd after being eliminated by the Toledo Walleye in Round 2.

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