ECHL Series Preview: Toledo Walleye vs Kalamazoo Wings

Toledo Walleye/ECHL

The Toledo Walleye will play the Kalamazoo Wings in the first round of the 2024 Kelly Cup playoffs. Toledo is one of the top teams in the league and brings some firepower from all positions. Head Coach Pat Mikesch hopes for a lengthy playoff run in his first year coaching the Walleye, as he has turned this team into a force with aggressive systems in place.

Walleye looks to make quick work of Wings.

Toledo finished the season with a 48-14-4-5 record for 105 points, which placed them first in the Central Division and second in the Western Conference behind the Kansas City Mavericks. Kalamazoo finished the season with a record of 38-30-4 for 80 points, placing them fourth in the Central Division and sixth in the Western Conference behind the leadership of head Coach Joel Martin.

The Walleye and Wings both want to be regulars in the Kelly Cup Playoffs, but they have not always made it. Kalamazoo has missed the playoffs four times, and the Walleye have missed the second season three times. The Wings goal this playoffs is to upset the Walleye, but it will not be easy.

Kalamazoo has been one of the few teams to have success against Toledo this season. The Wings are 9-4 against the Walleye, while Toledo is 4-7-2 against Kalamazoo. All games have been close throughout the season, as most have been playoff-style games, including a lot of defensive play and not many scoring chances. Toledo looks to change that in the playoffs, where every team starts at zero.

Related Articles: Toledo Walleye 2024 Kelly Cup Playoff Roster

Players to watch

Walleye forward Mitchell Lewandoski has recently returned from a short stint with the Cleveland Monsters of the American Hockey League (AHL), where he posted one goal and two assists for three points in six games. The Clarkston, Michigan native is a left-winger who has been solid in the middle-six, providing offense consistently.

Before the Walleye, Lewandowski played in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for the Michigan State Spartans. During his time there, he posted 56 goals and 64 assists for 120 points in 156 games. A player with tremendous speed brought that same offensive attitude to Toledo and has not slowed down. Aside from Brandon Hawkins and Trenton Bliss, he has been the forward to maintain a scoring touch throughout the season. This season, he had 14 goals and 40 assists for 54 points and 20 penalty minutes in 56 games. His 54 points place him sixth in team scoring.

Most of the focus will be on Hawkins and Bliss for their offensive production, which may leave Lewandowski open for some scoring chances. He is a threat on the power play and in the offensive zone, but does Kalamazoo have enough to stop all three?

Defenseman Michael Prapavessis was a fourth-round pick of the Dallas Stars in the 2014 NHL Draft. While he has not made the NHL yet, he has made a difference in a Walleye uniform this season. He has been a solid addition that does his job by playing a simple game and producing offense when given the opportunity. He also has plenty of hockey experience, which is handy during the playoffs.

Before coming to the Walleye, he played in the NCAA for RPI (Rensselaer Polytech Institution) and was named captain for his senior season. During his college career, he produced seven goals and 55 assists for 62 points in 154 games. He has also played in the ECHL for the Cincinnati Cyclones, Utah Grizzlies, Jacksonville IceMen, Orlando Solar Bears, Wheeling Nailers, and Idaho Steelheads.

Why is he one to watch? He has a sneaky offensive game and can join the rush when least expected while playing a solid defensive game. He plays a simple yet effective game that allows him to play at his own pace and contribute offensively. This season, Prapavessis is third in defense scoring, with two goals and 17 assists for 19 points and is a +14. In his last 10 games, he has six assists. He could be a real asset with his experience the longer this series goes.

Goaltender John Lethemon is the third Toledo player to watch in the first round. The Walleye will rely on him heavily, as he could be the player that gets them to round two. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound native of Northville, Michigan, has been rock solid for Toledo this season. He has tremendous recovery after a save and good positioning between the pipes to cut down the angle of the opponent’s shot, leaving fewer chances of rebounds.

This season, Lethemon is 26-7-2 with a 2.80 goals-against-average and a .890 save percentage. He may be in line to win his second straight Goaltender of the Year Award in the ECHL. Last season, he won the award, was named to the 2022/23 ECHL First All-Star team, was ECHL Goaltender of the Month for February, and ECHL Goaltender of the Week for the week of 01/30-02/05.

He has shown he can single-handedly win games for the Walleye and earned a call-up to the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League (AHL). He has tremendous talent and rarely lets in a questionable goal. His dedication and work ethic have played a big part in his success and could be why the Walleye could make a deep run in the playoffs.

Let us not forget about the late-season additions that could make a difference. Forwards Jason Willms, Dalton Messina, Brady Gilmour, and defenseman Jed Pietila have not looked out of place during their short stint with the Walleye, but they have never played a playoff game as a pro. They have all played massive minutes and may be counted on for secondary scoring throughout the playoffs. They have played well and contributed in their way and could shine with an increased opportunity.

The playoffs are a different beast, and anything could happen. The Walleye have a well-rounded team and a legit chance of winning the Kelly Cup. However, they play the Kalamazoo Wings, who have given them trouble during the regular season. The Wings barely got into the Kelly Cup Playoffs and only had 80 points, but they have had good luck against Toledo, and anything could happen. Will Toledo make quick work of Kalamazoo? Will Kalamazoo shock the Walleye and come out with a series win?

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