KALAMAZOO – It was close, but they made it! Needing just one point to clinch the final playoff spot in the American Conference, the Kalamazoo Wings defeated the North Division and American Conference Champion Toledo Walleye in grand fashion on Saturday night at Wings Event Center, shutting out the Walleye 4-0.
If the Walleye and K-Wings were tied at the end of regulation, a K-Wing win or an Elmira loss, would have pushed the K-Wings into the playoffs. But with the two points and losses by Adirondak and Reading, as well as Elmira, the K-Wings not only reached the postseason, but they finished as the number seven seed and will face-off at home against the South Carolina Stingrays this Friday night at 7 pm.
Due to a scheduling conflict with the Stingrays facility, the first three games of the best-of-seven series will be played in Kalamazoo, with the remained four in South Carolina.
It was not an easy climb to make the playoffs for the K-Wings this season. In fact, it was not that long ago when making the playoffs seemed like a longshot.
The K-Wings ended the regular season with a 38-28-5-1 record and were bolstered by winning nine of their last 10 games in the push for the playoffs. According to K-Wings head coach Nick Bootland, the turn around started back in December.
“I think it has been building since Christmas, to be honest,” Bootland said of his teams turnaround. ” I’m not a big stat guy, I don’t normally pay attention to whats going on or what the streak is but I had an opprotunity to reflect on the numbers and since December 27th we are 28-12-3. Those are unbeliveable numbers in any league. This team has really bought in to play for each other and thats what they have done.”
Bootland said that the team discussed as a group what they felt they needed to do to achieve their goals.
“They set a goal as a group, around Christmas time, where they felt they had to win so many games to make it and to push themselves, because we were fighting for our playoff lives at that point,” Bootland added.
On Friday night, the K-Wings lost in overtime to the Walleye 3-2.
With a playoff berth on the line, the K-Wings came out of the gate firing on all cylindars on Saturday night as they battled the Walleye in the final game of the regular season.
A tightly played first period was puncuated by a Tanner Sorenson goal. Sorenson sent a blast past the Walleye netminder Jeff Lerg with just 35 seconds left in the opening stanza to give the K-Wings a 1-0 lead.
David Gilbert kept the K-Wings momentum going in the opening minutes of the second period. Gilbert took a feed by Alex Mallet and waited with the puck until he found what he was looking for and fired in his 16th goal of the season to give the K-Wings a 2-0 lead.
Later in the period, Justin Taylor, who was in front of the net, deflected an Evan McEneny shot from the blueline into the net for his career best 26th goal of the year pushing the K-Wings lead to 3-0. The goal by Taylor was scored on the power play.
With just over a minute to go in the third period, Eric Kattelus put the exclamation mark on the K-Wings victory by scoring his fifth of the season.
Sacha Guimond had three assists on the night and goaltender Joel Martin earned the shutout, his third of the season.
In the midst of their push for the playoffs, the K-Wings team was dealt with a big blow when Dane Fox was traded from the Vancouver Canucks to the Carolina Hurricanes. Fox had scored 26 goals and 24 assists in 56 games with the team when he was traded.
“Losing Foxy (Dane Fox) and havingValky (Curtis Valk) called up a few times, that is and was a big gap in our line up,” forward Justin Taylor said. “But as a team we definitely seemed to grow stronger as a group and put our best foot forward towards a successful run into the post season.”
Taylor, who has been a K-Wing for the better part of six seasons now, has learned alot along the way and even met his wife while playing for the K-Wings.
“It’s been a fun ride, my time in Kalamazoo,” Taylor said. “I’ve had the privilege to play with some very talented players. My first year was filled with lots of excitement with being a part of a run to the finals in 2010-11(which the K-Wings lost in 5 games to the Alaska Aces).
Taylor continued, “I have learned a lot from the players I played with. What I picked up my first year as a pro has helped me carry into my 6th year. I get better everyday. Not just as a hockey player, but also as a person.”
Knowing how hard his team has worked to make their playoff dream a reality, Bootland would have been crushed. “Today would have been absolutely heartbreaking if this team did not make the postseason because these guys in that room (locker room), they deserve it.”
K-Wings News and Notes: Kalamazoo finished the regular season series with a record of 5-2-1-1 against the Walleye. Kalamazoo has scored the first goal in seven straight games. The first round of the playoffs will be the first meeting of the year between Kalamazoo and South Carolina.
By: Mark C. McGlothlen