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Walleye Weigh-In: Toledo embraces rivalry with Fort Wayne

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    Toledo Walleye goalie Jeff Lerg stops a shot by Fort Wayne Komets player Gabriel Desjardins during a playoff game between the division rivals last May.

    Blade/Andy Morrison

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    The Walleye's Connor Crisp keeps control of the puck despite the defense of Fort Wayne's Dennis Kravchenko, left, and Ryan Culkin, right, during the School Day Celebration game at the Huntington Center on November 16, 2017.

    Blade/Amy E. Voigt

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    Toledo's goalie Matej Machovsky rebuffs a Manchester shot on goal in the second period of the Saturday's game at the Huntington Center in downtown Toledo.

    Blade/Katie Rausch

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    Mike Borkowski of the Toledo Walleye and Zac Lynch of the Manchester Monarchs in pursuit of the puck during Saturday's game. The Walleye have started donning yellow helmets for select games this season.

    Blade/Katie Rausch

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The quirky ECHL schedule has done no favors for rivals Toledo and Fort Wayne, who have played six times this season with nearly every contest coming on unusual dates.

Special promotions and holidays are not necessary to pack either building. Fort Wayne and Toledo are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the league in attendance (nearly 7,500 per game). How about a home-and-home series? A Friday tilt in Fort Wayne and then a Saturday showdown in Toledo? Both fan bases travel well.

The Komets come to town on Friday with the teams in a neck-and-neck race at the top of the Central Division.

The teams have played at Fort Wayne on opening night, on Thanksgiving night, and on New Year's Eve. The two games that the rivals played against each other in Toledo both were special morning contests. The 10:35 a.m. faceoffs were well attended — but primarily by enthusiastic, young school kids.

“I'm looking forward to Friday night, having them on a regular evening with our fans in the building and let's see how things play out,” Walleye coach Dan Watson said.

The rivalry has heated up in intensity the last three seasons. Fort Wayne coach Gary Graham referred the Walleye as “the darling franchise” last April.

Toledo got the best of the Komets last regular season with a 5-1-0 record. The Walleye then ousted Fort Wayne from the playoffs just as they had in 2015.

But Fort Wayne has flipped the script this season. The Walleye have struggled to a 1-4-1 record against the Komets and are winless at Memorial Coliseum (0-3-1). Fort Wayne handed Toledo a 3-0 shutout on Dec. 31.

“We haven't won in Fort Wayne. It's under a microscope because they are a rival and it's a division game,” Watson said. “But really it was just game 32 of a 72 game schedule. Yes, we want to beat Fort Wayne. Everybody wants that — the fan base, the organization, the players. We get that. But at the same time, we've played them on [odd dates]. It was all big crowds and played in their favor.”

After Friday's showdown, the team's meet just one more time — on April 6 in Toledo.

However, a third meeting seems quite likely with the teams battling for the Central Division title. Near the midpoint of the season, Toledo (21-10-3) is one point ahead of the Komets (21-11-2) for first place in the division.

Walleye forward Erik Bradford said a tight race is shaping up.

“It's no secret Fort Wayne is right behind us and that they beat us the last couple of games,” Bradford said. “So these games are crucial for us. It's almost like a four-point game against a division team. We are aware of it and we're excited about it.”

Here are the attendance figures for the six games so far this season:

■ Oct. 14 in Fort Wayne: 10,089

■ Nov. 16 in Toledo: 7,509

■ Nov. 23 in Fort Wayne: 7,489

■ Dec. 1 in Fort Wayne: 7,495

■ Dec. 6 in Toledo: 7,542

■ Dec. 31 in Fort Wayne: 10,479

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Toledo's goalie Matej Machovsky rebuffs a Manchester shot on goal in the second period of the Saturday's game at the Huntington Center in downtown Toledo.

Blade/Katie Rausch Enlarge

Rookie rises: With a 3-0 shutout over Manchester on Saturday, rookie G Matej Machovsky now ranks fourth among all ECHL goaltenders in goals-against average (2.28).

While Machovsky has just a 5-6-1 record, he also has a .921 save percentage, which is just outside the top five in the league.

Machovsky, who is alternating starts with veteran goalie Pat Nagle, stopped all 33 shots he faced on Saturday.

“Obviously it's a good feeling,” he said after the game. “The boys played great.”

Watson said Machovsky, who is highly regarded by the Red Wings, has lacked goal support from his Walleye teammates.

Nicknamed “Macho Man,” the native of the Czech Republic had to overcome a lower-body injury at the start of the season.

“He deserves a better record and better fate,” Watson said. “He's stood tall for us.”

Puck luck: It's often been feast or famine with this Walleye team that has relied much more on grinding out victories than leaving other teams in the dust with offensive explosions. In the last three successful seasons, Toledo's speedy and creative teams were able to run away with their record-setting offensive production.

Toledo was shut out in back-to-back games last week for the first time since the forgettable 2013-14 season.

Goals did come in bunches for this bigger and more physical team early in the season. Bradford, who leads the team in scoring, said the skill is there.

“We've been struggling to find the back of the net, which is amazing with all the offensive talent we have on this team,” said Bradford, who is averaging nearly a point per game (20 points with 22 games). “It's a matter of time. It takes just one big game and all the players will get the confidence going and we'll get rolling.”

While the power-play goal scored by Tyler Barnes 42 seconds left in Saturday's 3-0 win over Manchester may have seemed irrelevant. It was not inconsequential. It allowed Toledo to finish the game with a power-play goal and 1-of-5 with the man advantage. It also ended a personal four-game goalless streak for Barnes, the former ECHL rookie of the year. Barnes, who has 24 points (8 G, 16 A) in 31 games, racked up 74 points (34 G, 30 A) in 71 games the last time he suited up for the Walleye in 2014-15.

Best bobblehead: For my money, the best bobbleheads in the organization's nine-year history have been the designs for former defenseman Cody Lampl, goalie Jeff Lerg, and coach Nick Vitucci.

Captain Alden Hirschfeld was bestowed with the honor last Friday with 2,000 figurines distributed before the game. Hirschfeld's bobblehead was a straight-forward approach with him bringing the puck up the ice. Hirschfeld said he was pleased with his depiction right down to the light beard.

Before the game even started on Friday, two of the bobbleheads were already listed on eBay.

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Mike Borkowski of the Toledo Walleye and Zac Lynch of the Manchester Monarchs in pursuit of the puck during Saturday's game. The Walleye have started donning yellow helmets for select games this season.

Blade/Katie Rausch Enlarge

Yellow helmets: The Walleye have donned some interesting yellow-colored helmets for the first time this season. Some compared them to the lids worn by the Goaldiggers in the 1970s and 80s. Others believe they look like those used by the NHL's Nashville Predators. To me, they're sharp.

ECHL all-star break: While the ECHL all-star festivities are not being held until next week in Indianapolis, the Walleye players are officially on their all-star break this week.

ECHL coaches are required to give players 72 hours off for the mid-season break. Toledo players have Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday off this week.

Alumni alert: Former forward Tyler Sikura has been on a tear in the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs.

Sikura, who played for the last two seasons for the Walleye, has scored a goal in two straight games and now has goals in five of his last seven appearances since Dec. 28 for Rockford. The forward ranks second in the AHL in goals over his last seven games with five markers.

Sikura has 12 points (8 G, 4 A) in 35 games for Rockford (Toledo's former AHL affiliate). In 2015-16, Sikura was the second-leading scorer with 48 points in 68 games on a Walleye team that sparked a recent resurgence. Sikura has played in 107 games in Toledo.

Contact Mark Monroe at mmonroe@theblade.com419-724-6354, or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.

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